Thursday, April 30, 2015

I look at things as they might be, and ask myself, 'Mightn't they?'

Ben Carson . . . retired neurosurgeon and conservative star . . . [has ]been traveling around the country in what might be called a non-strategic way.

Yes, indeed, it might. As I was speaking only yesterday of  Dave Clarke (serendipity or recency bias? I say serendipity), Dave Clarke has a far better chance of running an even marginally competent campaign for president than Ben Carson.

I don't say that a really, really smart and disciplined guy could never be able to do it, but I come so close to saying so that it's practically the same. Some electoral experience is certainly an advantage and might even be necessary.

But even then, c'mon. What's wrong with running for senator? Or congressman? Maybe as a campaign for vice president it might make sense, but even there I'm skeptical. The last thing anyone should want is another flameout campaign--and it sure seems as if most campaigns are indeed flameouts, not just failures or at least losers, which is by definition necessarily true, but actually damaging misfires. This is especially the case when it is somebody who clearly has a lot to bring to the table and shouldn't foolishly risk their credibility.

Ely's Gone

They were originally going to record it as an instrumental, but once inside the studio, Jack Ely, frontman of The Kingsmen, decided to sing it.  And that's how history is made.

Goodbye Jack.  We didn't need to know much about you--the song was enough.


Sexy Issue

[Note:  I wrote this the day the case was argued.  Since then, I've heard others make similar claims.  So if you've heard it before, all I can say is you're about to hear it again.]

Obergefell v. Hodges was argued earlier this week before the Supreme Court.  The question is are states, under the Fourteenth Amendment, required to license same-sex marriages, and also are they required to recognize such marriages from other states.  Pundits are trying to read the tea leaves, and many believe Justice Kennedy will be the one to decide.  Perhaps the Court will punt, perhaps they'll go all the way.  I wouldn't presume to know.  I'm pretty sure same-sex marriage is the future, and I think the Justices know that, but I don't know if that knowledge will affect the case.

One thing I do know is many conservative are outraged at the thought the Court will find that there's a right for same-sex marriage.  To quote, for instance, the editors on National Review Online:

If the Supreme Court rules that all state governments must recognize same-sex unions as marriages, it will not just be saying that the view that marriage should be defined in law as the union of a man and a woman is wrong—and saying that without any clear constitutional warrant. It will be officially declaring that this view is irrational, in opposition to the country’s fundamental principles, and, quite possibly, bigoted. The Court should refrain from taking that reckless step.
 
{...]
 
When the Court ruled in 2013 that the federal government could not define marriage as the union of a man and a woman for the purposes of its own programs, Justice Kennedy’s opinion was full of references to the prerogatives of the states. If the Court now rules that states do not have the authority to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, either, it will be clear that those references were for show, and that the Constitution is the plaything of a willful Court.
 
They're not happy, but I wonder if such a ruling wouldn't be good for conservatives.  For years the Republicans used (or tried to use) gay marriage as a wedge issue.  Now that it's clear a solid majority support same-sex marriage, and that we're not going back, the issue can be used against the GOP.
 
If the Supreme Court declares same-sex marriage is a right, it will mostly take this out of the public arena.  Yes, some of the conservative base strongly enough opposes the idea that certain candidates will still make a big deal of their opposition, and might even say they support a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the decision. (Attempting to pass such an Amendment would be quixotic, but the funny thing is if people knew what was happening today, they might have passed it when Bill Clinton was President.) But most of the candidates, especially once there's a general election, can simply say that, regardless of their personal feelings, the Court has spoken and it's our duty to follow the law.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The kids are alright

There are ubiquitous polls about how the public doesn't know squat, can't find Miami on a map, don't know the Second Assistant Undersecretary of this or that office of this or that section of this or that division of this or that department of this or that branch, etc.

Or, evergreen favorites, the vice president, senate majority leader or for that matter majority party.

But just when you're about to lose hope, along comes something that tells you all is well: "Just 2% of younger Americans trust media to 'do the right thing'"

A present

You know what a good birthday present would be? Senator David Clarke, that's what.

Happy Birthday To Me, Happy Birthday To Me...

Taking it easy today, so let's hear some music from Sir Duke, who shares my birthday.














Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Peter Principle

No More Boring Sermons

I think His Holiness's mouth is writing checks he can't cash.

Game Afoot

"High Sparrow" was a densely packed episode of Game Of Thrones, the best yet this season.  And, as promised, the characters are starting to meet in all sorts of delightful new combinations.

We start with Arya in the House Of Black And White.  She's sweeping up, and it's a good thing too, since there's a whole lot of dirt and dust around.  Jaqen is helping a guy with a drink--though this apparently leads to his death.  Is this why people come?  Arya, who's been apprenticing to a lot of guys over the years, but never so explicitly, it impatient for her learning to begin learning to be Faceless.  But Jaqen sees Arya is all about Arya, when she has to become No One to serve their god (which seems to be death).

Back in King's Landing, Tommen and Margaery get married an no one dies!  Mags is popular with the people, as Cersei can't help but notice. And like Steve Martin in The Jerk, Tommen has found his purpose in life on his wedding night. It's all he wants to do.  Get in line.  (This season Tommen is a young man, so we're not watching kiddie porn.)  Margaery, of course, has no trouble wrapping poor Tommen around her finger.  She puts ideas in his head, such as does he really want his mother hanging around watching him?  He's not as nasty as Joffrey, but he's just as dumb.  Pretty soon he's suggesting mom back to Casterly Rock.  Hmm--she's not going to stand for that. And next Cersei goes to Margaery, and both say nice things that they don't mean.

Up North (is it Winterfell or Moat Cailin?--wasn't entirely clear this episode but I'm pretty sure it's the former) Roose and Ramsay are cleaning up the place.  Ramsay has been flaying Lords who just won't listen, but then, it's second nature to him.  Roose, just as dangerous but a lot smoother, tells him you can't run the North through terror.  As Reek serves them (I assume he's listening, but can he hear?), Roose let's his son know they need help with Tywin gone and no help coming from the Lannisters.  So the right move is marriage--to Sansa Stark.  Wow!  So the plan is finally revealed.

Sansa and Littlefinger, riding up North, stop at Moat Cailin, and he explains his plan.  This is a pretty big deal.  Ramsay is the son of the man who killed Robb.  (He's also the most sadistic prick in the the Seven Kingdoms now that Sansa's former intended, Joffrey, is dead.)  The old Sansa wouldn't stand for this, but Dark Sansa will listen to Petyr--this is how things work. It's even a chance for vengeance.  And they ride on.

Followed by Brienne and Pod.  Lot of open country--no one sees them?  They have a talk.  About time, since Brienne has been pretty jerky around Pod, who's not a bad guy.  They tell of their past, which could be tiresome, but works here.  Pod explains how he became a squire (instead of being hanged by Tywin, so not such a bad deal).  Brienne softens and decides she'll help train him, and then opens up.  When she was a girl she was having a lovely time at a party until she realized all the boys were making fun of her (so she could have been a regular lady if only...).  She was humiliated, until Renly danced with her, and from that point on she wanted to serve him.  Renly was always good with people.  And, we learn, she always knew he was gay--good to know, I guess, that's she's not that naïve.  And now she wants to avenge him by killing Stannis.

So let's look at the scorecard.  Roose and Ramsay wants to take over the North. Theon seems to be on their side, but can he remember what he used to be (and what he used to have?). Ramsay will marry Sansa, who hates the Bolton's. Littlefinger, allegedly sworn to the Lannisters, seems to be turning, though it's hard to say in what direction but his own.  Brienne wants to save Sansa from Littlefinger, but also wants to kill Stannis, who seems ready to march down to Winterfell.  So it should be quite a party.

Speaking of Stannis, he meets with the new Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, Jon Snow.  Stannis up north seems a bit more reasonable (if still steely).  Snow turns down the offer of becoming a Stark and taking back Winterfell--he's sworn to stay at the Wall.  Snow should tell him Aemon's story, but why bother, he's not moving.  And Stannis takes is reasonably well.  Snow is also thinking like a commander--he wants Stannis on the move--it costs a lot to feed an army.  (Speaking of which, where are these thousands, along with the thousands of Wildlings.  I guess it's just a TV show, not a movie, so we don't get a cast of thousands.)  Stannis announces he's leaving soon for Winterfell.  Good, time to get his plot moving.  Jon says he plans to keep his enemies close--has he been watching The Godfather?  After Stannis leaves, Davos sticks around--the King can see something in Jon. Hmm. What does that mean.  (Do you really want Jon to compete against you?)\

Back in Braavos, one of the young female trainees at the House comes into Arya's chambers and starts attacking her when Arya claims she's no one.  Jaqen comes in and explain how can she say she's Faceless when she's got Arya Stark's clothes, sword, etc.  He's going full Miyagi on her, but a little of that goes a long way.  Arya packs her few belongings and throws them in the bay.  Except Needle, which she hides. Hey, I want her to become a faceless killer, but we don't want to lose good old Arya--she's got a lot of avenging to do, after all.  Back at the House, Arya is finally allowed to go into the room where they take the dead bodies.  They strip them and wash them, but I'm not sure what the point is.

At Winterfell (I think, and not Moat Cailin--still, that's a pretty long ride), Lady Sansa comes in and is greeted by Lord Bolton. Now that's a meeting.  Ramsay says high (and Roose's fat Frey wife says nothing), but a bunch of the ladies there look on in a weird way. And when Sansa is shown to her room, and old lady tells her "Welcome Home Lady Stark--the North remembers." Now that sends chills down your spine.  This wedding may not be going as planned.

At the Wall, Snow holds his first (?) meeting.  He could give Alliser a bad duty, like latrine pit, but he won't. Instead the guy he beat gets to be First Ranger.  Smart move.  Janso Slynt is sent to another Fort to clean it up, and he gets high and mighty, refusing the order.  Slynt has always been a weasel, but is he stupid too?  Yes, he is. Or at least a bad judge of character.  When he insults Snow, Jon has him taken outside and gets his sword.  A fine Stark tradition, and Slynt (who did fine in the capital, like fellow weasel Meryn Trant) realizes he's overplayed his hand.  On the chopping block, he starts apologizing. To late, and pathetic last words. Off with his head.  Stannis watches, and approves.  Snow is a man he appreciates, even if they seem to be parting ways.

At King's Landing, at Baelish's establishment, the High Septon is involved in one of his kinky practices when the religious fanatics, the Sparrows, come in and force him out into the streets, naked.  Is this any way to treat the highest religious representative?  He marches into the Small Council (after dressing), rightly complaining. (Pycelle, who knows a thing or two about Petyr's place, quite agrees with him.)  The Septon is your classic religious hypocrite, and I thought Cersei might be sympathetic to his pleas that she arrests the sparrows and execute the "High Sparrow" (played by Jonathan Pryce, as we've been promised).

She seeks out the High Sparrow, humbly serving others.  It might seem nice, but we know you have to watch out with religious fanatics. Yet it seems Cersei is involved in some sort of power play--she's tossed the High Septon in the dungeon.  She knows the Sparrows will stop at nothing, so does she hope she can somehow enlist them for her devious plans?  Cersei is wilful, but not always that smart.  (Wait till they find out where he kids came from.)

Meanwhile, in Qyburn's labs, he's told to send a Raven to long-gone Littlefinger.  Does Cersei have any idea of Baelish's plans.  Does he have any idea of her plans?  We'll see.  Until then, we get to enjoy a little Frankenstein action of Qyburn's part.  That should be fun.

At Winterfell, we almost get the reunion we're waiting for as Dark Sansa walks by Theon/Reek, but doesn't recognize him. I don't know how she's react, but more important, I want to know what Theon is thinking. Is he going to turn? In what way?  Ramsay and Littlefinger have a little talk before Ramsay sends his (former) bastard away.  Roose has received (and read) the message of Littlefinger.  So is Petyr truly planning to side with the Boltons, is he still with the Lannisters, is he rooting for the Tyrells?  I have no idea at this point what he's working at, but no doubt it's devious.  At least Roose understands that it's okay to take big chances, as the Red Wedding showed.

Now we see Tyrion--wasn't sure if he'd make it into this crowded episode. He needs to get out of his wheelhouse and breathe fresh, brothel air.  He doesn't take the threat of losing his head that seriously, I guess.  Varys lets him out for a walk in Volantis.  The two would seem pretty conspicuous, but the town is crowded, so maybe here they can get lost.  They stop and see a priestess for the Lord of Light.  Tyrion mentions "Stone Men" who have greyscale--we heard about this disease last week, so now I can only assume some major character will soon acquire this plague.

The priestess is proclaiming Daenerys the savior.  Really?  I didn't notice Dany being particularly religious.  Meanwhile, Stannis, with an army and a clear claim to the throne, is explicitly devoted to the Lord of Light.  Guess that stuff doesn't play as well in Essos, or at least he needs better public relations.

Varys and Tyrion go out for a good time.  Tyrion starts some banter with a whore, but can't go through with it (neither can Varys, even if he wanted to).  Did Shae ruin everything?  He goes to take a piss into the river, and is out of sight for a second.  Varys goes to follow, but before you know it, there's Jorah Mormont tying him up. Jorah would have been a much more exciting reveal if we hadn't seen his face before the credits reminding us of plot points.  Curse them!  I usually try to avoid this section of the show--I can follow the story, and even if I can't, I'll catch up.  Who needs those snippets anyway?

Jorah says "I'm taking you to the queen" and that's the show.  It's sort of comic, since he's going there anyway.  Tyrion would probably say that if he weren't gagged. (Some comments on the internet saw Jorah's line as ambiguous--which queen?  Certainly Cersei wants Tyrion badly. But come on, Jorah serves Dany, and wants back in her good graces. Besides, he's already got a royal pardon, and could have gone back to King's Landing by now if he wanted to.)

So that's it. All that happened, without even a word about Dany, or Jaime and Bronn's trip to Dorne. (And forget Bran--apparently he's out for the season. Fine with me, since the other Stark charges have so much going on it's hard to keep track.)  I've noticed this season the directors are doing two episodes in a row. Makes sense, since they've got to travel between all the sets, why not do it more efficiently?  But it almost makes me wish we had two hours shown back to back, so even week we could see what all the characters are doing.  Except then that each season would be over in a month.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Non-Jew Telling a Joke

On a whim (and after a fairly aggressive Groupon campaign), my wife and I and a friend went to "Old Jews Telling Jokes" this week- basically five actors on a bare set telling or acting out jokes interspersed with a few brief monologues about the characters.   Yes I've heard a lot of these before, but a lot I hadn't.  It grew out of a website featuring what the title says.   I really liked it and having my wife there was good so I knew what I was OK to laugh.  Kind of like a dirty meaner Soupy Sales (they mentioned him in the show- I'd forgotten all about him)

....So a guy goes into the doctor with carrots sticking out of his ears and mushrooms shoved up his nose.  The doctor says "You're not eating right.".....

I got a million of these.   Please remember your waiters and waitresses.  I'm here all week. 

Did you hear about the moil who didn't charge a fee?

Detroit New Wave

Happy birthday, Wally Palmar, co-founder and co-lead singer of The Romantics.







Sunday, April 26, 2015

George must have lost a bet

Is America ready for President Graham?

So Long Sid

Sid Tepper has died.  He was one of those guys you never heard of who wrote a bunch of songs we're still humming.

He had great success in the pre-rock era, but unlike many contemporaries, had no trouble adapting to the new sound, indeed becoming a favorite tunesmith for Elvis.









Saturday, April 25, 2015

Brown Notes

Michael Brown died last month, or he'd be turning 66 today.  He's best known for his work with the Left Banke, writing their two big hits.



Friday, April 24, 2015

Statistics on display

I couldn't help but think of LAGuy today as I watched a television screen at my favorite coffee shop.

A Brendan Fraser "Mummy" movie (anyway, something with Brendan Fraser, period costumes and a sarcophagus) was on, stifled, with closed captioning.

And I swear, it was as if a tribe of monkeys was typing it, lots of t's and x's and spaces and random punctuation, with nearly none of the near-words intelligible, either singly or in context, since you rarely got two of them visible at the same time. Of 100 word-efforts that I must have seen, I don't think a single one was typed correctly. Hard as it may be to believe, I think it was actually slightly worse than if I had been typing it.

All in all, it was an awesome display.

Big Food

"Denial, doubt and confusion"

No, it's not a new book about the Clintons.

Lies

It's been a good year for fans of Mary Elizabeth Winstead--she's already starred in two films, Faults and Alex Of Venice.  They might not be playing wide, but that's why Los Angeles is the film capital.  Faults was better piece, but it's still nice to see her in Alex.  It was not so nice to see this squib in the LA Weekly about the movie.

(What follows will be spoilers of a title that will not be appearing in a theatre near you.)  Winstead plays an environmental lawyer, fighting against development of Los Angeles marsh land. Just once I'd like to see the protagonist of a film be on the side of the developers.

Her husband walks out, and in a subplot, her character has a fling with the guy who's behind the building she's against.  Here's how Pete Vonder Haar describes this in the Weekly:

[Alex is] abetted by [...] Derek Luke as a deceptively charming enemy real estate developer.

Where does Vonder Haar get the idea he's "deceptively" charming.  When they meet--by chance--and he picks her up, she already knows who he is, and he knows who she is.  He doesn't try to pretend he's anything he's not, or fool her into changing her mind.  They remain opponents in court and he's the one who still wants to talk after the case (which, admittedly, she loses), while she walks away.  Unfortunately, Vonder Haar is so prejudiced against real estate developers (as he proves in his parenthetical comments along the way) that he can't imagine the character's charm is anything but deceptive.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Glue

Some Saturday Night Live stars--John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers--could be quite versatile but still had a personality that shone through. Others, Dan Aykroyd being the original, would immerse themselves so deeply in the role that you almost forgot who was playing the part.

The ultimate such performer was Phil Hartman, who'd take any role, big or small, and play it for all it was worth.  His co-stars called him the Glue, because he helped hold things together.  His life was cut short, but now there's a biography by Mike Thomas--You Might Remember Me--to recount how he got to be such an essential player on SNL.

He was born in 1948--actually older than some of the debut cast.  He kicked around, doing various things in his 20s.  He was quite successful, in fact, as a graphic artist, designing several classic rock albums.  He also joined the Groundlings, L.A.'s top improv group, which was a feeder to SNL from the start.  Once there he worked with fellow performer Paul Reubens to help create Reuben's Pee-wee Herman character. Hartman played Captain Carl in the early shows once Pee-wee got on TV.

But it was Saturday Night where he'd become famous, and do his best work.  He joined in 1986, not long after creator Lorne Michaels took the reins back after being gone for five years.  Hartman stayed for eight seasons and created characters such as the Anal Retentive Chef, Frozen Caveman Lawyer and Frankenstein.  He also did spot-on impressions, avoiding caricature and trying to get as close as possible to the original, such as his Phil Donahue, his Frank Sinatra, his Ed McMahon and--probably his most famous portrayal--Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, he did lots of voice work, most memorably on The Simpsons, where he created characters such as useless lawyer Lionel Hutz and former matinee idol Troy McClure (who'd always note "You might remember me from..." hence the book's title).

Unlike some of his castmates, Hartman never hit it big in movies.  Maybe that's because he was such a chameleon he didn't personally come across.  After eight season on SNL, he did hit it big in prime time on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio.  It may have been good money, but for many of his fans, it was a letdown--we were used to him doing a handful of characters each week, and now he was stuck doing only one, episode after episode.

He'd married his third wife, Brynn, in 1987, and they had two kids.  He seemed to be a happy family man, but Brynn could get insanely jealous, and also had trouble with drugs.  On May 28, 1998, full of cocaine, alcohol and Zoloft, she shot her husband dead, and a bit later turned the gun on herself.

Mike Thomas tells Hartman's story in a straightforward enough fashion, though his writing is fairly cliché-ridden.  But even if the biography were better, it's hard to read because you know how it'll end--a large portion will describe how Hartman was be struck down while still in his prime.  But if you'd like to know where he came from, this is the book.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

GC

Glen Campbell is at a treatment facility for Alzheimer's right now, but I have to wonder if, on his birthday, he hears his old songs and smiles.












Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Stupid metrics or stupid headlines?


"respondents [were asked] seven separate questions about their finances, including whether they thought they had enough money for retirement, to maintain their standard of living or to cover their monthly housing costs. Those who expressed concern about three of the seven metrics were counted as worried about their finances."

But then comes the results and the headline: "Half of Americans have money worries"

Sorry. That's more likely to support the conclusion that half of Americans can't find their arse with both hands. But we'll never know if we rely on the news story, because that reporter and publisher can't find their arses with all four hands (or, if you want to be sunny and optimistic, they just don't care). Although I must say, I do like the hardly sly intimation that it's Bush's fault: "As few as two in five people were worried about financial challenges in the early part of the George W. Bush administration."

Yeah, not even Barack Obama has been able to undo the damage, and we all know why.

Song Clearance

One of the fun things about watching David Letterman has always been figuring how the song Paul Shaffer selects is related to the guest it introduces.

Last night was one of my favorites.  For Jon Travolta, he chose "I Can See Clearly Now." Fairly edgy for Paul.


Black And White World

Pretty good episode of Game Of Thrones on Sunday, "The House Of Black And White."  The producers promised we'd be getting new mixes of characters and they're starting to deliver.

We start with Arya gliding in Braavos.  Too bad Stannis already left or we'd have an interesting intersection.  She's taken straight to the House Of Black And White, so that solves that mystery.  Apparently everyone in Braavos knows this place and also knows they don't mess around, which is why Arya gets curbside service. But once she knocks on the door and shows the coin, the guy who answers doesn't let her in.  So she hangs around for at least a day, maybe longer, repeating her prayer (which has gotten a lot shorter--her enemies have been dropping like flies without her).  Eventually, she tosses her fancy coin and hits the road. Hey, Arya gotta eat.

Speaking of which, Brienne and Pod are at some sort of tavern, and there's Littleginer and Sansa across the way. After last week's near miss, it's so satisfying that they notice her,  Brienne doesn't think it'll go well and has Pod get the horses ready. She approaches the heavily guarded two and tries to explain that she's vowed to protect Sansa.  Baelish has heard of her and isn't impressed--she was sworn to protect Renly and Catelyn and both died.  But what does Sansa think?  She wants a word alone (to tell her Ayra is alive as well?) but Sansa wants nothing to do with her--she saw her at the bow to Joffrey at the Purple Wedding. Pretty funny, actually.  When Brienne set out to find the Stark girls, she had all of Westeros (Essos, too) to find them, yet managed to do it.  And both turned her down.

The heat is on and Brienne and Pod escape.  They're chased by Littlefinger's men, and for all we know Pod will die--it's not like he's a major character.  But, leaving behind a few corpses, they survive.  Pod makes a good point: the Stark girls have turned you down, doesn't that release you from your vow?  For the first time we'd see Brienne unbound. But all she's ever wanted to do was swear fealty to someone important, so she's going to be following Sansa and Petyr. Good, that'll add some spice to their story.

At King's Landing, Cersei fears for Myrcella in Dorne, now that Oberyn is dead.  Jaime is worried, too, and decides to do something about it.  Once again, good. Jaime and Cersei were getting to be a dreary couple, so getting a change of scenery might make him fun again.  But he needs a hand, so he invites (forces) Bronn to come along.  Double good--he's been out of action for too long as well.

And we cut to Dorne, as far south as Westeros goes.  We've heard jokes about it since season one, but we're finally here.  One of Oberyn's Sand Snakes are pissed about his death, but the calmer head of Prince Doran, prevails--for now anyway.  Myrcella is safe at the Water Gardens, but for how long?

In Meereen, the Unsullied patrol the streets, searching for Sons Of The Harpy.  But they're too obvious.  Daario is much better at finding these terrorists, and sure enough, he finds one hiding.  He's brought before Dany and her counselors.  Most want to kill him, but Barristan wants a fair trial.  (They've got due process in Westeros?)  Once alone with Dany, he actually makes a pretty good speech about her "mad" father, and how his ways didn't work.  But hey, Dany, this is Meereen--do the same rules apply?

In a covered wagon, we've got Varys and Tyrion on the way to Volantis which is on the way to Meereen.  Varys has come a long way, but he does seem to care about the realm. (Didn't help Ned Stark very much.).  The Imp is still filled with regrets, while the Spider sees his talent and thinks he can help make things work.

Via a comic cut, we see the head of yet another dwarf being dropped in front of Cersei--she is willing to kill every dwarf until she gets the right one, so Tyrion better hide.  Then she goes to a meeting of the small council and, denying she wants any power but is merely aiding Tommen, makes it clear she's in charge.  She deals with the dopey Tyrell guy by giving him so many titles that he couldn't serve as hand, and she deals more harshly with her Lannister uncle. Pycelle doesn't dare do much, even when she promote the creepy Qyburn. Cersei can use some wise heads, but she'd rather have dwarf heads. Doesn't bode well.

Now we're at the Wall.  Shireen is teaching Gilly to read--see, this is the sort of mix we never would have guessed would happen.  They talk about her disease, which Gilly has seen kill people--wonder if that information will matter in future episodes?  Then Queen Baratheon comes in and shoos Gilly (and Samwell) away--don't get too close to these people.  No, better to stick with the Red Woman.

Meanwhile, Snow is meeting with Stannis. He's not thrilled about showing Mance mercy.  The real trouble is the Free Folk will never follow Stannis, only one of their own. But Stannis has a plan, and not a bad one. He's got the power to turn Snow in Stark--he can destroy Bolton and become the true King of the North, who'd be followed by the people.

Snow has to think about it.  Really?  Isn't this everything he's always dreamed about? I don't care if he took the black, don't you want to be able to spend the winter in Dorne?  Before Snow can even turn it down, though, the election for Lord Commander (998th--really?  How many thousands of years have they been there?) takes place. Samwell makes a stirring speech for his surprise nomination (knocking Janos Slynt along the way, which is always worth it), and the tie is broken by Maester Aemon for Snow.  Okay, as long as you're stuck there, might as well be in charge.  Though it's pretty clear by this point that George R. R. Martin, and probably Weiss and Benioff, have bigger plans for him.

Back at Braavos, Arya walks the streets. She's tough, but is she--and Needle--tough enough.  We don't need to find out, since the guy from the House Of Black And White walks by and the street toughs poop their pants.  The real problem is Arya has no mentor.  By my count, not counting her dad, she's had five major mentors along the way, and each one made for great scenes.  She follows the guy back to the House. He pulls of his face and--voila!--he's Jaqen H'ghar.  And ten million fans rejoice.  They walk into the House, and I guess her faceless training has begun.

This could almost be the end of the show, but Dany has a problem to clean up.  One of the former slaves and killed the prisoner.  Good riddance, a lot of people would say, but he went against the direct commands of Mhysa.  They take him out to the public square and, very much against the public will, execute him.  Hey Dany, who do you think you are?  Joffrey?  That night, walking out on her balcony, who should appear but her long lost Drogon (her favorite child, no matter what she tells the other dragons).  Did he hear she's gotten tough?  Then he flies away, but he's around, and that's a big deal.  Maybe it's time to stop ruling Meereen and sail to Westeros already.

And with that we're done.  Not too many characters left out.  None of the Bolton/Reek stuff, but that's usually unpleasant anyway.  And we've set up what Brienne will be doing (after an existential crisis that lasted about two seconds), where Varys and Tyrion are going, who'll be training Arya and where Jaime is heading and quite a few other plans.  We're still not so sure what Littlefinger plans, but if he's heading up North with former Winterfellian Sansa, things might be heating up, since he might meet with the Boltons, Snow and Stannis.

Monday, April 20, 2015

You Wish

I saw As You Wish in the library and checked it out.  It's a book by actor Cary Elwes about his experience as the lead in The Princess Bride.  It also includes the voices of many others who worked on the film, such as Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin and Fred Savage, as well as author/screenwriter William Goldman and director Rob Reiner.  It seems to be selling well.

The Princess Bride is a phenomenon more common in the age of home video--a film that didn't do particularly well when released but became a beloved classic anyway when word of mouth spread. It recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala showing in New York, attended by much of the cast and over a thousand fans who shouted out their favorite bits of dialogue as the film unspooled.

The stories Elwes tells (aided by collaborator Joe Layden) are reasonably entertaining.  He talks about how he was cast, injuries he got during shooting, weeks of swordfighting rehearsals, going out on the town with cast member Andre the Giant, etc. It's also a book (not unlike the movie) with a generous spirit--pretty much every cast and crew member is described as incredibly nice and supremely talented.

If I have a problem with the book, it's a personal one--I'm halfhearted about the film.  I like it, but I still remember how disappointing I found it.  As a director, Rob Reiner had started with three home runs: This Is Spinal Tap (another film that became a classic after the fact), The Sure Thing and Stand By Me. Then came The Princess Bride, which, though well-reviewed, was more a bloop single.

The problem is the film tries to do a lot and only manages to do a little. I can't be sure whose fault it is, but it's probably Reiner's.  It tries to be a romance, a comedy, a satire, a kid's movie, a period piece and a swashbuckling adventure, but generally falls short.  Reiner had shown a knack for contemporary comedy, but the romance, the action, the costume drama, seem beyond him.  Which leaves us with a minor and somewhat disjointed comedy.  And though Elwes and Reiner keep mentioning how the casting couldn't have been better, I think it could.  There are some eccentric performances, and a solid one at the center (Robin Wright's, not Elwes'), but the only one who really stands out to me is Mandy Patinkin.

Elwes, by the way, comes across as a humble, decent man.  I hope he never reads this.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

'Despite' is not the word you are looking for

Bana Ban

I like Eric Bana, and I was recently watching him on TV in one of his flops, Lucky You.  I like the concept--a great poker player with all sorts of personal problems.  But it doesn't work, and not just because it's handled poorly. The basic idea is wrong. He's got daddy issues, which is one thing.  But his dad is played by Robert Duvall, and they face each other in the big tournament at the end.

This just doesn't work.  Issues are one thing, but we want to see a film about a guy dealing with his life, not actually betting against his father.  Our hero should have moved beyond that by now.  (And--spoiler alert--having him throw the tournament is just not satisfying after it's been built up so much, whether or not it works "psychologically." Even in the old days when people could lose, look at The Hustler--Paul Newman comes back, beats Minnesota Fats, and only then gives it all up.  And for all I know, Newman had daddy issues, but he ends up facing Fats, not his actual father.)

Watching the film I felt Bana had made this mistake before (or at least appeared in a film with the same mistake).  Then I remembered--his first big film, Hulk, another disappointment. Director Ang Lee wanted to do something different, so instead of having this Marvel mainstay fight a classic villain, he ends up fighting...his father (played by Nick Nolte). This is no fun. It's feel incestuous, if anything.  And if the son hasn't already surpassed his father, why are we watching his story to begin with?

So Eric, remember, in the future, it's okay to have daddy issues, even fight against father figures, but not so on the nose, okay?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Mair! Not Phair!

Move over Megan. Never heard of her before, but now I'm in love with Liz Mair.

Sing Out

Dimples, the first karaoke bar in the world (or so they claimed), and a mainstay of Burbank, has closed.  I've been there a few times, as have thousands--maybe millions--of others.  I think I even have a DVD of my performance somewhere.

Dimples is making way for a Whole Foods and an apartment complex, but the music will echo on.





Friday, April 17, 2015

Is that a typo?

"Clearly over the next 20 years Internet TV is going to replace linear TV"

Twenty years? Does he mean two? It must be a bit of misinformation put out to the public, i.e., competitors.

It might be time to abolish Citi


Hard to say what my favorite part of the article is. Maybe "Abolishing currency would inevitably be associated with a loss of privacy and create risks of excessive intrusion by the government . . . In summary, we therefore conclude that the arguments against abolishing currency seem rather weak."

Of course. That's not a bug, it's a feature.

Trailer Smash

I still remember the first time I saw Star Wars.  I was living in Detroit and the best place to see such a film was on the big screen they had at the Americana in Southfield.  So we drove cross town and there was as large crowd who apparently had the same idea.  You never knew--there had been a fair amount of publicity for the film, but it wasn't like today when everyone knows if something big is happening.

I remember seeing placards in the lobby--the film looked so mysterious, yet enticing.  There was one photo of Princess Leia leaning down to deal with R2-D2 (not that I had any idea who they were then).  I remember how magical the whole film was, from its first shot.  I remember leaving the theatre, exhilarated.

Since then, Star Wars has become more influential than anyone could imagine.  But can the upcoming sequel ever recapture the magic that first film had?  Probably not, but based on the reaction to the new trailer, it may be that at least the series is back on track.

Judge for yourself:


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Well, that makes me feel better

The first thing I want to do is get rid of the use of this word immortality, because it’s enormously damaging, it is not just wrong, it is damaging. It means zero risk of death from any cause — whereas I just work on one particular cause of death, namely ageing.”

Swell. I won't die until Lois Lerner gets my 501c3 application.

Comm Together

I was thrilled to hear there'd be a sixth season of Community, even if it wouldn't be on NBC.  I was less thrilled to hear it would be on Yahoo screen, since that's not a service I pay for.  But then I went back to thrilled when I heard they were streaming the shows for free.  All you have to do is sit through some commercials, which I used to do for the show anyway.

I've watched the first six episodes, and it's a strange experience.  It's a lot like Community, but not quite.  I'd say Community has now gone through four distinct eras.

1.  The first three seasons, with the full cast and creator Dan Harmon on board. The show changed and grew, but was still centered on the study group seven making their way through Greendale Community College.

2.  Season four, after Dan Harmon was fired. The zombie season.

3.  Season five, where Harmon was rehired, but Chevy Chase and then Donald Glover left, and where the study group had graduated and now were working for Greendale.

4.  Season six, no longer on NBC, where Yvette Nicole Brown has left as well, and two new characters are regulars at the table.

So the study group is long gone, its mission changed, and new characters have taken over.  Indeed, the original engine that started the plot--Jeff Winger trying to get a college degree so he could be a lawyer again--is so long gone that now Winger is a professor at the school.

The new show is fun, but not quite as fun as the original.  It still takes plenty of chances, and plays with the format (fake music videos, promos for other shows, computer animation), but the stance is different.  The study group were underdogs doing their best, now as Greendale guardians there's less tension and the plotline drifts more.  Of those left from the study group, Jess has gone soft, Britta has become completely hopeless, and Abed and Annie are now more experienced which has made them settle down and act a bit more normal.  I like the new actors--Paget Brewster as the no-nonsense Frankie Dart, and Keith David as the grumpy 1990s computer whiz Elroy Patashnik, but they're consultants, not fellow students.

In any case, it's an entirely different chemistry.  Maybe Community could survive losing Chevy Chase's Pierce, or Yvette Nicole Brown's Shirley, but losing both turns their corner of the table into another show.  The biggest loss of all is Donald Glover's Troy, who formed the nucleus with Abed, Annie, Britta and Jeff.

We know from a previous episode the darkest timeline is when Troy leaves.  The show is nowhere near that bad, but it just isn't the same without him.  After the sixth season, if they decide to make that movie, I hope he returns.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

PS

Percy Sledge has died.  He had a long career, but is known almost entirely for a #1 hit single where he gives one of the most emotional performances ever recorded.


What's So Funny?

Years ago, when Billy Crystal was a movie star, he wondered how many more films he'd be allowed to make.  He was talking about age, but he forgot about popularity. Now that he's not quite the box office attraction he used to be, he's back to where he started, in television, starring, with Josh Gad, in the highly-promoted FX comedy series The Comedians.  Both leads are talented and have done good work, but you wouldn't know that from the pilot.

The concept is as simple as it is tired--Billy Crystal and Josh Gad play two guys working on a sketch show.  These guys are names "Billy Crystal" and "Josh Gad" and the show we're watching is an alleged documentary about the making of the show.  This is based on a Swedish series, but the concept has been done elsewhere.  Even more done is the lazy documentary format.  Still, you're hoping there might be some life in the form yet.

There isn't.  At least not on The Comedians.  Crystal and Gad's characters are both jerks, but not in a particularly funny way.  And, unlike other fake documentary shows, they're playing versions of themselves (though I assume they're not too much like these characters--at least I hope not) so there's less separation to allow them to create something truly fresh.

The pilot is about how the sketch show came about, and Crystal and Gad outdo themselves in being shortsighted and narcissistic.  Perhaps the show will move beyond the shaky start and find a groove.  The question is will the audience still be around to see that happen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Recipe for success

Ah, the system works. A majority of people eligible to vote have a ratio of share of income tax paid to share of income that is less than one.

Perfecto! Now we just need to work on income inequality--by increasing this ratio still further.

I say we cut to the chase, confiscate all income and distribute it equally, of course after illegal immigrants have been made whole. And I would hope it goes without saying that some groups need to be punished and their shares given to victims who need to be made whole. Goodness knows how many people have been victimized by the Tea Party alone.

Wars Are Coming

Game Of Thrones is back on, and that's always a good thing. (Silicon Valley is back, too, and still very good.)  The first episode of season five, "The Wars To Come," catches us up with most of the characters.  Even before the action, in the credits we see we're going to Pentos--and I bet I know who will be there.

We start with an odd sequence where a young, imperious girl with a powerful father visits a witch.  The witch tells her future--she'll be queen, but will be usurped by someone younger and more beautiful.  Cut forward to Cersei--we kind of knew it was her. (I'm not a big fan of magical predictions in literature--I like the future to be open.) Cersei is walking up the steps to see her father lying in state.  She passes Margaery, probably figuring this is the one who'll replace her, but we're thinking Daenerys.

Jaime is at his father's side, and Cersei, predictably, isn't happy that her lover/brother released Tyrion.  Jaime is as responsible for Tywin's death as the Imp.  She has a point.  Jaime recognizes, at least, that now is no time for weakness--with dad dead the vultures are circling.  Still, what can he do?  What can Cersei do?

Tyrion has been Fedexed to Pentos (as we expected), and Varys paid the postage.  I don't think we've been in Pentos since the first season.  Tyrion seems to think there's nothing to do but drink himself to death at this point, while Varys has plans--he's always got plans.

The Harpy is pulled down in Meereen, but a secret rebellions starts, and an Unsullied is murdered. Dany has the Unsullied patrol the city.  Turns out staying put and ruling isn't so easy.  Meanwhile, she has put down the rebellion in Yunkai, but the former masters want a concession--open up the fighting pits.  She says no.

At the Wall, Jon Snow is training his men.  Haven't things calmed down a bit there?  Apparently they'll soon be voting in a new Lord Commander for the Night's Watch, but do we really care?  More important, Snow is called before Stannis.  The would-be king has a plan--he wants to take back Winterfell from the nasty Roose Bolton, and go on to take back the rest of Westeros. He figures he needs some help.  (What happened to all that gold from Braavos?  And the 100,000 soldiers?  Has he squandered it all?)  And so he wants to enlist the Wildlings.  Actually, a pretty good idea.  Unfortunately, he'll only do it if Mance bends the knee. Good luck with that.

Over at the Eyrie, Robin is in training. He stinks, of course, but Littlefinger is glad to leave him behind in fighting school.  Not far from there, Brienne stews.  She couldn't help Arya, and doesn't want Pod following her around. What about Sansa? Have they already tried the Bloody Gate and been turned down?  Speaking of which, there's a coach driving by with Petyr and his ward. He's leaving the area--too dangerous, full of people who may turn on them.  But he won't tell Sansa where they're going.  We only know it's far away.  Where could that be?

Back at King's Landing, people offer condolences to Cersei. She runs into cousin Lancel, with whom she once connived. (Is that what they're calling it now?)  He's found religion, become a Sparrow, and says it can offer her comfort. She doesn't want it, but it's clear with Tywin gone religious radicals are coming back to the capital--that may mean trouble.  Elsewhere, Loras sleeps around--he and Cersei won't have to get married, now, will they?  Margaery is a bit disappointed--getting Cersei to Highgarden would leave Tommen all to herself.

In Pentos, Varys lays his cards (what else does he have?) on the table.  All along he's been fighting for the Realm, and right now the best man for the job is a woman. He plans to go to Meereen and work with Dany, apparently. And he wants Tyrion with him.  Okay, but 1) just what will they do, and 2) just how will Dany treat them when they drop in?

Speaking of Dany, her boytoy Daario tells her to open up the pits.  Forget all this morality jazz--the people want it and it will make you look good. More important, what's with the dragons tied up?  You're the dragon queen. He's got a point--she'd be nothing without them.  The third one hasn't been seen, but she goes in the dungeon where the two are locked up and they don't seem happy.  Has the Mother of Dragons lost her brood?

Snow goes to Mance, but we know what's gonna happen.  Mance can't bow to anyone, so he goes outside, wishes Stannis luck, and the lady in Red starts lighting him up. It's a sad spectacle, ended early when Jon puts an arrow through his heart. (Ygritte would be proud.)  And that's all for this week.

We saw some good setups--it'll be fun to have the Mother of Dragons meet the Imp. Have no idea where some are going--Littlefinger, Brienne? Any chance they'll meet up after the near miss?  Margaery and Cersei seem ready to go at it, while Jaime is at loose ends.  Stannis is ready to make some sort of move, though how it'll play out is hard to say--especially with the Night's Watch having to deal with the White Walkers.  No Roose, Ramsay or Theon, which is okay. Ser Jorah's out there, but who knows where?  Bran is where he needs to be, but it's not clear what he'll do.  And where is Arya? Her adventures in Braavos could be a series on its own, I bet.

Monday, April 13, 2015

L. B.

Lou Bega turns 40 today.  If you've forgotten the name, he's the guy who had the gigantic hit "Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of...)" and could never quite follow it up.





Sunday, April 12, 2015

Let The Game Begin

There should be dancing in the streets because season five of Game Of Thrones starts today. (Silicon Valley and Veep too--appetizers or dessert, depending on what order you watch.) Now where did we leave off?

Arya is traveling overseas to Braavos to learn new skills, while the Hound is dead (or dying, or who knows?). Are Brienne and Pod are still heading toward the Eyrie, where Sansa lives, or have they turned around?  Littlefinger seems to have big plans for Sansa, but we'll see where that goes.

Daenerys runs Meereen, or should we say is bogged down there, while her dragons are chained.  As I've complained more than once, she knows there are plenty who want her dead, so why is she being a sitting duck when she could make her move on Westeros?  Okay, the dragons could grow a bit, but as this season starts shouldn't they about be ready?  Meanwhile, Ser Jorah has been banished--will he try to get back in her good graces, wage war against her, or just sulk?

The awful Boltons seem ready to make their move, whatever that is, and Theon is their slave.

Lot's of activity at the Wall.  Jon Snow is in charge, and while he was making peace, Stannis and Davos swept in to defeat Mance.  Melisandre is there, and she seems to see something in Jon--will it be goodbye, Stannis?  On top of that, the White Walkers are threatening to attack (as they have been from the first scene in the show--come on, already)--and they could be the biggest threat of all to the Seven Kingdoms. Beyond the Wall you've got Bran, who can't walk, but will soon learn to fly.  What will that mean?

Tyrion, after (I'm pretty sure) killing his father, has escaped King's Landing with the help of traveling buddy Varys.  Don't know where he's going, but you know he'll be central to the story. His erstwhile champion Oberyn Martell was killed, so there will certainly be repercussions in Dorne.

Meanwhile, the Game of Thrones continues in King's Landing itself.  Cersei from House Lannister and Margaery from House Tyrell are fighting to control the boy-king Tommen Baratheon.  There may be more fallout from that than anything else.  Jaime seems to be sitting on the sidelines, but no doubt he'll soon have his own adventure.

Maybe best of all, I hear the show is getting further and further away from the books, so it'll be tougher for all those obnoxious fans to give out spoilers.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Meta screw up

So for some reason all the ads I'm seeing are for "The Longest Ride" (which the poster says was "Made in Hollywood"), the latest Nicholas Sparks feature. Lots of closeups of grabbing saddle horns and other protuberances.

As for the title, all I can say is, isn't that a bit on the nose?

The Other Berry

Richard Berry was a singer and songwriter of the early rock era who might have been forgotten had it not been for one composition which became a classic for another band, "Louie Louie."






Friday, April 10, 2015

A good start

Man kills judge, two others on rampage through Milan courthouse

Too bad this guy wasn't one of the victims: [Selfless Public Official] said the priority was to ensure nothing similar ever happened again. "This is not the first time this has happened but obviously it must be the last."

Yes, obviously. Never again. Now let's make sure Iran gets nukes!

Saul Called

The first season of Better Call Saul is over, and it was both entertaining and unnecessary.  It featured plenty of the style that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould brought us in Breaking Bad, but did we need it?

Saul was the shyster on BB, and he provided the show with much comic relief, as well as being an interesting character in his own right. Giving him a series didn't seem like a bad idea, especially if they staked out new territory.  It would have made for a fine comedy, with Saul getting new, bizarre clients each week, finding tricky ways to get them out of their situations.  This would have been even easier to do if Gilligan hadn't decided to pointlessly bring down Saul Goodman in BB--I still don't get why he had to go underground.

But that type of show is not Gilligan's style.  He likes origin stories. Breaking Bad was pitched as the story of Walter White going from Mr. Chips to Scarface.  So it figures Gilligan would go back in time to show us how Jimmy McGill got to be Saul Goodman.

But why should we care?  When I see a fully-formed character, I'm not concerned with where he came from.  Saul was great from the start, and how he got that way was a riddle that didn't need to be solved.  I just accept such characters and enjoy them.  Maybe I'll fill in the gaps a bit with my imagination, and I'll often be disappointed when the creator of the show gives his own opinion which doesn't agree with mine.

In fact, some of my least favorite stuff in BB was Gus's past.  He started as a mysterious man, soon revealed to be a brilliant and cold-blooded villain. What more did we need?  Certainly not the "reasons" he is what he is--mystery is better the whining about past slights and pat psychological explanations for present-day activity.

So I'll keep watching as Saul travels toward his predestined appointment.  There's still some mystery as to what will happen to those close to him, and maybe we'll even get lucky and get some stories from Saul's future where we don't know what will happen. But for now, Better Caul Saul is just filling in something I was already satisfied with.

On the other hand, I could stand more of Mike.  He's already fully formed.  Sure, there was a bit to explain about his troubles back East, hinted at in Breaking Bad, but he's still the same badass from that show.  Just as I'd enjoy weekly doses of fast-talking Saul on new cases, so do I like more tales of Mike's badassery.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Just in time for Mother's Day

'America is the real terrorist and my boys are the best'

She seems to have trouble judging quality and performance--are they even top 10?--but God bless her spirit. (A friend of mine called this the Three-year-old Defense. It's where the regulated tells the regulator, "I didn't violate the permit; you violated the permit.")

Sniping

The University of Michigan, my alma mater, canceled a showing of American Sniper because students, especially Arab and Muslim ones, said the film is propagandistic and makes them feel uncomfortable.  The argument is the "Best of UMix" event it was scheduled for is supposed to be fun, so the title didn't fit.  In its place they'll be showing Paddington.  The University now claims they will reschedule Sniper, to be shown with "an appropriate educational panel discussion."

Not much to say here, except there's a backlash, and my guess is more people on campus think this is stupid than think its smart.  And also that many people in positions of authority at universities seem to have forgotten what the point of the institution is.

PS  As this story spreads, the University officials seem to be getting more and more embarrassed.  Perhaps the film will now be shown at the event (with "safeguards"), but what counts is the original decision, made when they figured no one else was watching.

Satire Stan

Stan Freberg has died.  I've always been a huge fan.

He was the first celebrity I saw when I moved to Los Angeles. I wanted to go up to him and ask him about all his attacks on rock and roll--how'd that turn out?










Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Wag the dog

Howard Kurtz told Megyn Kelly last night . . . the decision by Rolling Stone not to fire anyone involved . . . “one of the worst journalistic scandals in the last half-century.” In one sense, that may overstate the issue, as other scandals have involved deliberate fabulism on the part of the reporter rather than the source — Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke are all examples, the last of whom won a Pulitzer for her false reporting.

Finding a parent or volunteer or administrator who stole money from your school or city government is not "worst" because it's criminal and deliberate. It's a relatively rare criminal act, something at the extreme, that almost never involves an amount of money that is material to the entity.

But the stuff that's done casually and pervasively, that's the damaging stuff. Rolling Stone is just a rare case where they've been caught. LAGuy says there's nothing inherently wrong with agenda journalism, but of course there is. Right off the bat it's a failure. It won't be fixed by prophylactic measures such as checking your premises. And when it is the dominant mode of production, then we simply don't have journalism. A shame, really, and probably fatal.

Direct Talk

I just read David Mamet's On Directing Films.  I enjoy Mamet discussing the dramatic arts, not necessarily because he's right, but because he's so bracing.  He's got eccentric views, but he's no-nonsense and wants to break down storytelling to its basics, getting rid of the obfuscations so many artistes enjoy to the detriment of their work.

Like his essays on playwriting, Mamet believes it's the job of a film to tell a story, and the director to aid in this quest.  If you cut something and the story survives, you don't need it.  Fancy shots, concerns about subtext and backstory, beautiful scenery, etc. are the sorts of things that get in the way.

It's a short book, not much more than 100 pages, half of which are transcripts of discussions he had with film school students at Columbia.  He tries to explain what a director should do, which are basic things, like deciding which shots to take (which should be taken care of during preproduction) and what to tell actors.  With the students, he goes through constructing a scene.

First you've got to know what's the objective, to understand the throughline that holds it all together.  So the class decides they will construct a scene where a student wants to impress a professor.  Mamet asks them to give him the shots that will do it.  The first move will be for the protagonist to get a classroom early--remembering every point along the way is to impress the professor.  Second, the student will prepare something with his notebook for the prof.  Next, he'll introduce himself and so on until he finally get to what he wants, which is to get a bad grade changed.

But one thing at a time.  How to show getting there early. The class goes through many variations, guided by Mamet, who keeps reminding them to keep it simple, avoid clichés, and don't inflect it--that is, don't busy it up with unnecessarily fancy information that can be hard to shoot and, more important, will get in the way of the audience, that just wants to know what will happen next.  (Audiences are smart and fill in what's needed, and if you're self-indulgent you're slowing things down and insulting them.)

So what shots show someone early?  How about having the student walking down the hall.  He gets to the classroom, tries the door, it's locked.  He sits down and waits.  All visual, all simple.  And Mamet's class goes on through the entire scene.

Mamet also writes about what to tell the actors.  For the shot of the student walking down the hall and trying the door, just tell the actor to walk down the hall and try the door.  You don't even have to tell him it won't open.  You might tell him to walk slowly or quickly, but you don't go into motivation, don't worry about what the character is thinking, or where he just came from.  The character only exists in this action, and many of these separate bits are what will make up the story.  A nail holds up a house, but a nail should look like a nail, not the house itself.

As for camera placement, put it where you feel it'll best tell the audience what the action is.  Part of this determination is done subconsciously.

Mamet feels a lot of directors think they should just follow the protagonist around.  That's not the way to go about it.  To Mamet, a film tells it story though the juxtaposition of shots.  Always, the audience must be wondering what happens next.  So don't have the actor or the shot try to explain what everything means in microcosm.  The meaning is revealed once the shots have all been lined up, one after another.

Indeed, as a director, choice of shots is all you have--and you can't fix things in editing or with the performances, it's got to be there to begin with. Good dialogue can make it better, bad dialogue worse, but can't save it either.

And always keep it simple.  No one sits down on a park bench and says "I need a rest because I'm a Vietnam vet who's been walking around all day going to various government offices to try to get certain funds which are denied me due to the lack of interest from this administration." Most likely the person will sit down and say "screw it!" or sigh or say nothing.  That's the shot, and design them so overall they create an effect.

Actually, I think Mamet, at his best, is a fine writer for the stage, but film director?  His style is a bit bloodless.  He wrote this book over twenty years ago when he only had two films to his credit.  Now he's done over ten features, and while some are entertaining, it's not a particularly distinguished group.  Still, it's fun to hear his beliefs.  If nothing else, his ideas clear away the cobwebs created elsewhere by so much pretentious theorizing.

Final Number

Broadway and cabaret legend Julie Wilson has died.  Let's have an encore.






Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Racing

The Fast And The Furious series is an odd one.  Not based on any superhero or big-name property, it started in 2001 as a mid-budget actioner about an undercover cop (Paul Walker) infiltrating the world of street racing headed by an ex-convict (Vin Diesel).  It was a surprise hit leading to two sequels with diminishing returns.  By the third film, made without the original stars, the series looked in trouble.

It was rebooted with Fast & Furious in 2009, bringing back Diesel and Walker and making the most money yet.  Since then, there's been a new F&F every two years, each with a bigger budget, each a bigger hit.  And though some characters have died along the way, there got to be a regular cast of sorts, featuring Walker, Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster and Dwayne Johnson.

The latest, Furious 7, had an astonishing opening, making almost $144 million domestic on the first weekend.  It will be the biggest hit of the series by far.  Part of the fascination is to see how the filmmakers dealt with the loss of lead Paul Walker, who died in a 2013 car crash before completing the shoot.

What may be most interesting is how the films changed.  What started as an expose of an illegal underground scene has long ago left the real world, morphing into the tale of a close-knit crew of various types who travel around the world using their superhuman physical and technical skills to defeat ultra villains.  The oddest thing, in a way, is not the absurdly enjoyable set pieces, but how important the emotional core has become.  The central group loves each other--calls each other family (not unlike another popular franchise, The Walking Dead)--and are only pulled into these adventures when some foe tries to destroy their peace.

Some have pointed to the diversity of the cast to explain its success, and there's something to that, but it's got to be something more.  Anyone can cast one from this ethnicity, one from that, and so on--and, in fact, this isn't uncommon in ensembles these days.  But I would hope the audience is more attracted to story and character than it is to racial solidarity.  It would be sad if the film's "diversity" matters because each group that sees the film does so in solidarity with their own people.

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