Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What's So Funny?

Here's a list of the top ten sitcoms of the 1990s.

1.  Friends
2.  Seinfeld
3.  Frasier
4.  Everybody Loves Raymond
5.  Mad About You
6.  Wings
7.  Roseanne
8.  Home Improvement
9.  3rd Rock From The Sun
10.  The Larry Sanders Show

Hmm.  Some decent choices, some weird ones.

Seinfeld definitely has to be here.  Maybe #1.  Friends deserves a spot as well, though not at the top.  Roseanne is about right.  Larry Sanders is ranked too low.

The rest I can take or leave. Frasier was a solid show, but vastly overpraised and over-awarded.  Everybody Loves Raymond I never got into.  The thing I remember best regarding Mad About You is the Seinfeld episode where George, as part of the punishment that came with being engaged, had to watch the show in bed with Susan.

Wings was one of those shows that made you say "that's still on?" Home Improvement was a huge hit, but I never though much of it, and I don't think it's aged well.  3rd Rock was kind of fun, so it might as well be on the list.

There are a handful of shows not listed that should have made it, but the only one I can't believe not included is The Simpsons, which was at its height in the 90s. It's the only show that might take the crown from Seinfeld.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Wonderful Wonderful

I recently watched It's A Wonderful World on TCM.  I'd only seen it once, and that was years ago.

The film, a screwball comedy pairing Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert, isn't well-remembered.  In fact, bring it up and most people will thing it's a typo for It's A Wonderful Life.

It's interesting to see Stewart and Colbert together in 1939.  He was an up-and-comer at MGM while she was a more established star who usually worked at Paramount.  The movie is about Stewart, a detective, trying to prove his client didn't commit murder.  Stewart himself gets in trouble for harboring a fugitive and spends most of the picture hiding from the cops.  He comes across Colbert and soon they're on the run together.

Five years before, Colbert had starred in (and won an Oscar for) one of the greatest love-on-the-run comedies in It Happened One Night, which essentially started the screwball craze.  And in 1939, audiences had another chance to see her in a classic screwball, Midnight.

Meanwhile, Stewart, in 1939, also made Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Destry Rides Again, and would do even better in 1940 with The Shop Around The Corner and The Philadelphia Story (for which he won an Oscar).

It's A Wonderful World can't compare to those titles, but at least these two gifted farceurs are making a comedy.  Consider Carole Lombard, queen of screwball. In 1939, she appeared in Made For Each Other--with the very busy Jimmy Stewart--as well as in In Name Only with Cary Grant.  She was working with two of the greatest comic actors of the time, but both films are melodramas.

The script of It's A Wonderful World is by Ben Hecht, one of the busiest writers in town, and one of the best, though I wouldn't call this one of his major efforts.  It's got a murder plot which, for a screwball comedy, is fairly nasty, and doesn't mix that well with the overall tone.  It's interesting since the director, Woody Van Dyke, had shown he knew how to mix murder with comedy in the Thin Man series.

And the characterizations, even for screwball, aren't that believable.  Stewart's character is fairly bad-tempered, and he's pretty harsh with Colbert.  But all she needs to do is discover he's not such a bad guy--which she does off-screen--and suddenly she's falling for him. Meanwhile, he can't decide if he likes her or not. Compare this to the comedies I mention above to see how a relationship can form the core of a comedy, holding it together no matter how nutty the story gets.

For that matter, look at the scene in It's A Wonderful World where Colbert and Stewart are playacting to fool people about their identity.  Not bad, but compare it to Colbert and Gable doing the same thing in the far superior It Happened One Night.  Their work is far more natural and thus funnier, and helps establish their growing feelings for each other.

And for a farcical plot go, look at the complications screenwriters Brackett and Wilder created in Midnight, which has delightful escalation as Colbert gets in deeper and deeper with her impersonation (the title itself comes from the moment when Cinderella's masquerade is over). In It's A Wonderful World, things get frenetic, going from one plot point to the next (the film, in fact, has quite a bit of plot), but it doesn't necessarily whip the comedy into a frenzy by making things increasingly complex.

Still, the film moves well, there's funny stuff, and both leads are quite charming. On top of which, it's a feast of great characters actors, including Guy Kibbee, Nat Pendleton, Edgar Kennedy, Ernest Truex, Grady Sutton and a very young Hans Conried.

Back then audiences probably figured Hollywood would be putting out this sort of film indefinitely.  Little did they know the era of great romantic comedies was coming to a close.

So even if it's not top-tier, we can enjoy it as a decent example of something we rarely get any more.

PS  Most of the promotional photos for It's A Wonderful World have Colbert on the right.  I presume that's because she thought her left profile was her better side.  You can notice this as well in how she's shot in her movies.

Monday, January 29, 2018

TR

Today is the 69th birthday of Tommy Ramone (though he died five years ago).  He was the first drummer the Ramones had.  He plays on their first three albums and produced their fourth--and since their first four albums are their best, that means something.







Sunday, January 28, 2018

UKLG

Let's say goodbye to Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last week.  She was one of the top science fiction writers, and wrote with the eye of a true anthropologist, suggesting how societies might do things differently from what we're used to.  And, as opposed to most sf writers, who are male, she did it while raising three kids.

She's well known for the Earthsea series and Hainish cycle, but I admit I only read a handful of her stories novels.  The two I remember best (maybe because they were the ones being talked about when I was most busily reading science fiction) are The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Lathe Of Heaven.

The former is about a world where people's gender is not fixed--a daring concept when it was published in 1969.  The latter is about a man who's dreams become reality, and the psychiatrist who tries to harness this power.

Le Guin would often approach her stories from a different angle .  For instance, the concept in The Lathe Of Heaven could become a story where the lead characters go on exciting and dangerous adventures.  Le Guin was more interested in the personal responsibility of having a power you can't control, and an investigation in general on how we can't control our destiny.

I haven't read her in years, but maybe I should go back and see how she holds up.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Just Checking

Americans will soon be noticing bigger paychecks thanks to the tax cut passed last year by the GOP.  In addition, a lot of companies are giving out bonuses to workers because (they claim, though I wonder if it's true) they can afford to with corporate taxes coming down.

This puts the Dems in a bind.  They opposed the bill, so can't support it now that it's law.  But how can you come out against the public getting more money?  They're trying their best, however.

But their best amounts to calling the people idiots for not recognizing they're getting very little while others make more.  Thus Nancy Pelosi describes $1000 cash bonuses as "crumbs."  And Debbie Wasserman Schultz claims the bonus won't go very far.

It's funny because the tax law wasn't a good idea, but not for these reasons.  It was dumb because we've already got a huge deficit and this will only make it bigger.  Also, the law was a missed chance to simplify the system (though some parts of it are good).

But Dems can't make this point.  They can't credibly worry about the deficit, and so can only try to whip up resentment that the well-off are getting to keep more of their own money than regular folks do.  It's hard to argue "who needs a few thousand extra a year--what we want to do is raise taxes so we can give it back to you in ways you'll like even better."

Friday, January 26, 2018

Full Court Press

The sentencing of Larry Nassar, the serial sexual abuser at USA Gymnastics, is all over the news.  (He was an undergrad at University of Michigan while I was there, by the way. He later worked at Michigan State University.)

His Judge, Rosemarie Aquilina (who attended Michigan State University undergrad), sentenced him to 175 years.  But she did more than that.  She made a long speech, which has made her a media star.

[Let me note here I wrote something that was too long, too confusing and kind of boring.  It was about how courts express the will of the people, while at the same time the judges are supposed to be the disinterested arbiters of the law (even if it never fully works out that way).  But forget that.  Instead of my comments, let's just see some excerpts from the judge's speech:]

...I was raised on old country values. And my grandmother always told me and my parents always told me, my grandfather too, that America is the greatest country. I believe that. That's why I served in the military. That's why I have always done community service. I am not really well-liked because I speak out. I don't have many friends because I speak out. If you ask me a question, you better be ready for the answer. I speak out because I want change. Because I don't believe in hiding the truth. I am not saying I am always right. But I try....

...I want everyone to understand, I have also done my homework, I always do....

You played on everyone's vulnerability. I'm not vulnerable to you or to criminals. I swore to hold the Constitution and law and I am well-trained. I know exactly what to do. This time, I am going to cure it....

And I want you to know, as much as it was my honor and privilege to hear the survivors, it is my honor and privilege to sentence you. Because, sir, you do not deserve to walk outside of a prison ever again....

You have gone off the page here as to what I am doing. My page only goes to 100 years. Sir, I am giving you 175 years which is 2100 months. I have just signed your death warrant....

Let me just state to the media.  Again, I am just doing my job.  I know you all would like to talk to me.  My secretary informed me that I have a growing stack of requests from print media, from television, from magazines, from around the world, literally.

This story is not about me. It never was about me.  I hope I've opened some doors, because you see I am a little stupid because I thought everybody did what I did and if they didn't, maybe they ought to, but I do this and I am happy to do it.  If you don't believe me, the keeper of my words is right by my side and lawyers who are hearing this and shaking their heads that yes, I have waited too long.  Sometimes people are upset, I don't care, I get paid the same.

The most controversial thing she said, though, was spoken near the end of the first day of the hearing:

Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment.  If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls, these young women in their childhood, I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Close Encounters

Two stories.  (There was a third but I forgot it.)

1.

I was at a party that featured a bartender.  I asked for a drink, and while he poured, he leaned in and starting telling me about some problems he'd been having.

I'm not sure if he gets the whole bartender things.

2.

I was at a store and passed a guy with a shirt that had some words on it.  But the words were so small I couldn't read them.

I actually had to walk around to pass him again.  And this time I got much closer--it was almost uncomfortable.

It doesn't matter what was on the shirt.  The point is, if you want your shirt to communicate with others, make sure the lettering is large enough for the average passer-by.

If you're curious, you can read the words in the photo.

Was it worth the effort?  You tell me.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Count The Parts

I caught the new drama on Starz, Counterpart.  It's about Howard Silk, who's been working in Germany at a mysterious UN bureaucracy for 30 years. His job seems to consist of meeting some other guy in a room and exchanging information through official code.

He figures it's time for a promotion, but his young boss makes it clear he's a drone who's not going to advance.  Then something happens, which involves spoilers so I'll tell you in the next paragraph.

Our hero is called into a special meeting with higher-ups.  It turns out his counterpart--a guy who looks just like him but lives in a parallel world--is coming into Silk's world to do some work, since there's been others crossing over.  Apparently, three decades ago this parallel world was discovered on the site and the agency is there to deal with it.  The two worlds were the same at first, but have since been diverging.  It's worth noting that Howard Silk Prime is a cool guy who's advanced pretty far in his job.

The lead is J. K. Simmons, who as an actor was all but unknown up till his mid-40s. In the last twenty years or so, however, he's been making up for lost time.  He now does several films every year as well as TV series.

He brings a certain authority to any role, and seems to be the right guy to play Silk.  Other actors include Olivia Williams and Harry Lloyd from Game Of Thrones.  There promises to be plenty of clashes in future episodes, along with a thickening plot.  I suppose I'll stick around a little longer to see where it goes.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Academy Nods

The Oscar nominations are out.  Here are the big awards, with my comments:

Best Picture:
“Call Me by Your Name”
“Darkest Hour”

“Dunkirk”
“Get Out”
“Lady Bird”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Post”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
 
Not a single surprise. A few weren't guaranteed, such as Darkest Hour or Phantom Thread, but no shocks.  Too bad some really interesting titles, like I, Tonya and The Florida Project, didn't make it.
 
Lead Actor:
Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”
 
Once again, mostly guaranteed.  Even Denzel for his awful movie (with a good performance).  And you've got to give Day-Lewis a nod for every film, especially his last.  Oldman is all but guaranteed to win. The choices are, for the most part, weak.  The biggest surprise (not Tom Hanks, who regularly misses out on nominations) was no James Franco--could the rumors of sexual misconduct matter, or is it just there was no room in general for The Disaster Artist?

Lead Actress:
Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
Meryl Streep, "The Post
 
Once again, no surprises, but this time a great category.  Meryl gets her annual nomination (though I don't think she'll win).  It would be great if Margot Robbie won, but it's probably between Hawkins and McDormand (who's already won), with Ronan an outside chance.  No Jessica Chastain, but the Academy apparently didn't think much of Molly's Game.

Supporting Actor:
Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
 
No surprises.  Usually the strongest category, and it's certainly competing for that with Lead Actress this year.  No bad performances, though it looks like it's between Dafoe and Rockwell.  I only wish The Florida Project got more attention in general.
 
Supporting Actress:
Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”
 
The only slight surprise here is Lesley Manville--it would have been easy for the Academy to ignore Phantom Thread, but instead it got all the attention it could want.  I still don't get Blige's nomination, though everyone assumed it would happen--she didn't particularly stand out in Mudbound.  The battle will be between Metcalf and Janney, with Janney having the edge.
 
Director:
"Dunkirk," Christopher Nolan
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele
"Lady Bird," Greta Gerwig
“Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson
The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro
 
Now we see which Best Picture nominees are the favorites.  I think it's silly Get Out got any nominations, but what are you going to do? And along with Jordan Peele, first-timer Greta Gerwig's nomination is sort of a big deal. No love for Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, The Post (from Spielberg--did they figure it was just a procedural?) and Three Billboards.  The last deserved something, but I guess they figured it was the writer's film (even though he also directed).
 
Adapted Screenplay:
“Call Me by Your Name,” James Ivory
“The Disaster Artist,” Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
“Logan,” Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
“Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin
“Mudbound,” Virgil Williams and Dee Rees
 
Finally some attention for The Disaster Artist, not to mention Logan and Molly's Game.  Still don't get the love for Mudbound.  A fairly weak category, compared to original screenplay.  Unfortunately, it looks like Call My By Your Name will win.
 
Original Screenplay:
“The Big Sick,” Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh
 
Some fine choices here, though I, Tonya (was that original?) and The Florida Project are once again no-shows.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Black Is Back

I've been getting into Black Mirror.  This being a British show, it took me no time to finish all the episodes, since it's been on four seasons which means they've produced 19 hours so far.  It started in 2011 on the U. K.'s Channel 4, but has since moved to Netflix.  It tends to feature British actors, but also has some well-known American faces, such as Jon Hamm and Bryce Dallas Howard.

Black Mirror is an anthology show, somewhat like The Twilight Zone.  It's sci-fi, though of the sort that's set in the not-too-distant future, where society is mostly like today's world with certain advances in technology.  And generally, as the name indicates, things aren't going so well.

The show was created by Charlie Brooker, who's written most of the shows.  Half the fun in many episodes is trying to get your bearings after you've been dropped into a (slightly) new world.

All the hours (I call them hours, but they actually vary from about 40 to 90 minutes) seem to take place, if not in the same future, at least in ones that are closely related.  We see certain ideas more than once, such as consciousness digitally downloaded into a machine, or equipment that allows people to read a brain and see what others see.  There are also certain themes, like how easily and harshly people can punish others. (The most recent season made more connections between its episodes and previous ones--there seems to be an effort to put all the stories in a single universe, though I'm not sure that's a good idea.)

Most of the episodes are bleak.  Some could almost be described as horror--though without a supernatural element, unless you call futuristic technology supernatural.  Some have a more comic bent--though being comic doesn't necessarily make them any less grim.  And a few even manage happy endings.

Overall, the level of writing, acting, directing and design is high.  I've been checking out various episode rankings on the internet, and it's interesting how little they agree.  The show has had only a few clinkers, but the ones I thought didn't quite work are called the best by some, while some that I thought were great are ranked low.

So check it out and decide for yourself.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Last? Promise?

This weekend, The Last Jedi limped over the $600 million mark in domestic gross.  For any other film, this would be a great achievement--it's presently the sixth biggest grosser of all time.

But for the new Star Wars series, this is a disappointment.  Last Jedi opened huge but burned out fast.  The first of the Disney Star Wars, The Force Awakens, made $936 million.  Last Jedi will end up with about two-thirds that.

Fans couldn't wait to see it, but they had serious problems after they did.  I didn't hate it, but I certainly had my problems.  I could list quite a few, but here are my top five:

1)  What happened to Luke?

He started as an eager kid hoping to be a hero.  He later became a Jedi master.  And now he's a whiner.

Rey comes to his planet, Ahch-To (which sounds like spitting) to learn the Jedi way.  She finds Luke, who half the time acts like a jerk, the other half like a baby.

Then when we get to the big explanation for how he got this way, it turns out we were right--he's just a big whiner who, when things didn't go perfectly, took his ball and went home.  Imagine if the original Luke pouted the entire first film because he couldn't go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

Characters should grow over time, but Luke regressed.

2)  Everyone is too close.

Look how they did it in The Empire Strikes Back.  The Empire is hot on the trail of the Rebels.  They catch up to them and attack.  But the good guys manage to escape, though eventually the bad guys catch up again.  The cat and mouse aspect is fun.

Instead, The Last Jedi has good guys and bad guys who are, cosmically speaking, ten feet away from each other, engaged in a staring match for two and a half hours.

3)  Han Solo is dead.

Okay, this problem was bequeathed to The Last Jedi by the previous film. But Han was the best of the old characters, giving The Force Awakens a jolt of energy, so it wasn't easy to recover from his loss.

All the more reason not to have Luke spend most of the film licking his wounds while Leia spends most of her time in a coma.

4)  Everyone's got secret plans.

Poe sends some friends on a secret mission to disable a tracking device.  Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Holdo has her own secret plan to save the Resistance. If these people just sat down for a second to compare notes, maybe they could have come up with something.

By the way, neither plan really works. (Snoke also has a secret plan which fails ever worse.)

5)  The worthlessness of Captain Phasma.

I want my bad guys to be tough, so when you beat them it means something.  Instead, Captain Phasma, in charge of the storm troopers, can barely get out of her own way.

She captures Finn and Rose, but soon afterwards loses a fight and that's that.  (And why hire a well-known actress to play the role if we're not allowed to see her face?)

Bonus complaint.  As I noted in my 2017 film year in review, the great Admiral Ackbar is dispatched with even less ceremony than Bob Fett got in Return Of The Jedi.

Oh Ackbar, you should have known it was a trap.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Lead Better

Lead Belly was born 130 years ago today.  That sounds like a good reason to celebrate.






Friday, January 19, 2018

The Mighty Amazon

Amazon has been looking for a site for its second headquarters. Suitor-cities across the nation begged for the leviathan to ensconce itself in their environs.

Now Amazon has announced a list of 20 spots it's considering:

Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Montgomery Country (Maryland), Nashville, Newark, New York City, Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Toronto, Washington D.C.

A few notes.

1) Sorry all you also-rans.  The list tends to be major metropolitan areas, so you were never in the running to begin with.  And most are in the East or Midwest, which makes sense since you don't want to be too close to the other HQ in Seattle.

2)  Chicago?  A fine city--I've lived there--but the way Illinois (and Chicago) is being run, I'd stay away.

3)  Columbus, Ohio?  Let's get serious.

4)  Los Angeles?  It might seem to make sense if you're planning to take over show biz, but please stay away--traffic is already impossible.

5)  Newark can probably offer you a pretty sweet deal, since it's badly in need of renewal.  But are you willing to do that renewing?

6)  New York City is certainly the home of many a large business, but it's pretty crowded and they won't appreciate you, anyway.

7)  Raleigh was hip twenty years ago.  Is it still the place to be?

8)  You may have to do a lot of lobbying, so I could see being located in D.C.  But otherwise, would you really want to hang there?

9)  I guess my hometown of Detroit never had a chance.  But hey, when I was growing up, three of the five biggest companies were headquartered there.  Maybe you should give it another look.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Baddest Part Of Town

I've caught the first couple episodes of The Chi, the Showtime drama created by Lena Waithe about life in the South Side of Chicago.  Interesting enough to keep watching.

It's about how tough the life is, with violence and repressive authority, but also about how those living in its midst try to make do, and find happiness where and when they can.  Because this is gang territory, and treated apparently with benign neglect (if that much) from the cops, people know the score and understand that violence can erupt at any moment. But it doesn't define their lives.

The show is somewhat reminiscent of The Wire, except that tale of Baltimore was equally about the cops and those on the streets (and kept widening its view in later seasons).  The Chi concentrate on the community as a whole (which does mean spending some time at the precinct). All ages are represented--kids in school, young people trying to establish themselves, older people holding on as best they can.

I lived in the South Side for a few years when I was in law school, but it was the relatively safe confines of Hyde Park.  Very few students would venture past the southernmost tip of the University of Chicago (which is where the law school was located).  But I did get to know the area somewhat, and just seeing the streets and the structures brought back memories.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fun in The Dark

I just read Opening Wednesday At A Theater Or Drive-In Near You, Charles Taylor's look at exploitation films from the 70's.

The titles, such as Vanishing Point, Hickey & Boggs, Foxy Brown, Ulzana's Raid, Citizen's Band and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, were dumped into theatres without much fanfare, treated as vaguely disreputable by the studios who made them.  Yet Taylor sees something more there.

It was a different time.  Hollywood, released from censorship, was experimenting, and the films of the era--not just famous ones like The Godfather or Chinatown or Nashville--treated audiences like they were adults.  In the post-Star Wars world, according to Taylor, Hollywood makes movies for adolescents, but back then, even cheap films could have ambivalent characters, and protagonists who lose and lose big.

They also described, generally without condescension, an America that was at war with its own impulses.  Americans were searching for a sense of community that was lost (or never there to begin with) while at the same time seeking a sense of freedom and autonomy that required living outside normal society.

Taylor has always been a lively writer, and he expresses his enthusiasm for these films quite well.  He's also perceptive, making one want to take a second (or, in some cases, first) look at these films.  I question some of his arguments (both aesthetic and political), but overall, a book well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

DO'R

Dolores O'Riordan has died.  She was only 46.  As I write this, her death is unexplained.

Seeing her name really brought back memories of the 90s. Her group, The Cranberries, had a pretty specific sound, mostly thanks to Dolores.






Monday, January 15, 2018

Softie Simon

I've been reading a collection of John Simon's theatre criticism from 1974 to 2003.  Simon is known for being hard to please, and not holding back.  For instance, this book contains the review where he notes how Liza Minnelli looks like a beagle.

But I notice a bit of softening.  He seems to find more he likes--compared to his film criticism, and earlier theatre criticism, anyway--and at times takes an almost jovial tone.  Occasionally, he even gets hyperbolic in his praise (I'm guessing--I didn't see most of these productions).

More surprising, he admits he made mistakes.  I'm not saying he shouldn't--we all change our minds over time on some things.  It's just that most critics, especially ones as harsh as Simon, don't like to take things back.

Yet a few reviews--particular for Sondheim shows--now have footnotes written in 2005 when the book was published.  For instance, regarding Merrily We Roll Along, we get "Sorry.  This is a much better show than I realized at the time.  Some of it was the production's fault, much of it mine."  And for Sunday In The Park With George: "In this and other reviews of Sondheim's music, the passage of time, repeated exposure, and my own maturing have proved me wrong." Good to see he was still maturing, even though he was almost 60 when George opened.

After reading his harsh, unyielding criticism for years, I'm not sure how to take this.  It shows a graciousness, I suppose, but mostly it's unsettling.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Silver Lining

I recently read Susan Silver's memoir Hot Pants In Hollywood.  I was particularly interested in finding out about the several fine scripts she wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The TV stuff in general is fun, and I wish it were more of the book.  However, she spends as much time on her relations with men, not to mention a fair amount on her politics and her health.  Hey, it's her life, and her book.  But would anyone be reading it if she didn't have those TV credits?

The book came out last year, and she had time to put in a story about an unpleasant encounter with Bill Cosby.  But it didn't come out so recently that she had a Harvey Weinstein story.  She does mention him, though:

....I made some good suggestions [on a movie project] to Harvey Weinstein, who for some reason didn't scare me as he does so many others.

I wonder if that's all she'd have said if she were writing the book today.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

But I Still Insist There Is A Resemblance

Here's a piece about Michael Wolff's book on Trump that starts thus:

I read as much of Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury" as my stomach lining could stand, and then I watched Donald Trump's last rally of the 2016 presidential election.  Groucho Marx's old line came to mind -- "Who are you going to believe, me, or your own eyes?"

This is an outrage.  Anyone paying attention knows the line is Chico's:



Okay, he's dressed like Groucho, but it's pretty easy to tell the difference.  Chico has so few classic lines compared to Groucho, give him a break.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Blow Out The Candles

Who are the two most important names in radio in our era?  I'd have to say Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern.

I just recently noticed they have the same birthday, January 12th.  I can't be the first person to have caught this, but there it is.




Thursday, January 11, 2018

Film Year In Review--2017

It's time for our eagerly awaited annual film wrap-up.  If it's a bit later than most, it's because I see movies with regulars folks at the cineplex, and need to catch up in early January.

This is the paragraph where I generally say it wasn't much of a year, but 2017 was one of the best in a long time.  Usually you're lucky if you get one special film per month, but last year they seemed to come out every week.  Okay, every two weeks.  And even some failures turned out to be pretty interesting (I'm looking at you, Mother!).

Not that I'm a pushover.  In fact, a number of highly-regarded titles didn't do much for me.  Which ones?  Read on and find out.

Before we start, a few ground rules. I discuss only feature films released or made widely available in U. S. theatres in 2017.  No shorts, no TV, even though that cuts out some great stuff.  (And the distinction between TV and movies is getting fuzzier--my rule is if I saw it in a theatre first, it's a movie.)

I will give out some awards, note some trends, tell you which films were good, bad and ugly, and then list my top fifteen.  Usually I do a top ten, and have to stretch to make that, but this year was good enough for a top fifteen.  I could have managed a top twenty.  Anyway, you can rush to the bottom right now to see the list, but really, the best stuff is along the way.

Feel free to leave a comment, whether you agree or not.  In fact, comments tend to be better when you don't agree.


2017 AWARDS:

Performance Of The YearSo much good work this year it's had to pick a single performance, but I'll choose someone in something not too many saw (so you can't say I'm wrong)--Haley Lu Richardson in Columbus as a young woman at a crossroads.

Star Of The Year: Margot Robbie, deglamming a bit, but also showing she can be a star and an actor at the same time in I, Tonya. Runner-up: Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, who just a year ago won my award for not quite being a star yet.

Most Unpleasant Performance:  Mel Gibson in Daddy's Home 2.  This is not due to any personal feelings about Gibson.  It's just that the character he plays is so unrelievedly unpleasant. I realize some characters are meant to be annoying, but I don't understand why Gibson's role as Mark Wahlberg's father was made into such a hateful creep with no redeeming qualities.

Best Non-Performance By A Non-Person:  After shooting his part in All The Money In The World, scandal-ridden Kevin Spacey was removed from the film and replaced by Christopher Plummer.

Most Miscast Role:  Ellar Coltrane in The Circle. I realize it's a minor role in a film no one saw--and a film that wasn't working anyway--but the part required a salt of the earth type, which eccentric Coltrane is anything but.

Best SequelThor: Ragnarok, where Marvel pulls off one of their best superhero films from one of their weakest superheroes

Worst Sequel: Always a highly competitive category, I've got to go with Daddy's Home 2

Most Disappointing Sequel: Guardians Of The Galaxy 2.  The first one came out of nowhere and was delightful.  This was the opposite.

Best Reboot: Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle.  As opposed to the critics, I loved the original Jumanji, and while the filmmakers went in a different direction this time out, it still worked.

Worst Reboot: Let's say hello and goodbye to King Arthur in Legend Of The Sword.  Runner-up: Blade Runner 2046, which followed the original all too well in giving us dazzling design with an obscure, poorly told story.

Worst TV AdaptationBaywatch--as bad as CHIPS at three times the cost.

Put It Out Of Its Misery Award: After Justice League it feels like the whole DC universe is a mistake.  We've already got more than enough superhero films.  Can we just cut off this branch?  Runner-up: War For The Planet Of The Apes. I surrender.

Best Line:  Same as in 2003.



Runners-up:  From A Bad Moms Christmas, of all places.  Mila Kunis, unhappy at the lavish Christmas party her mom has forced upon her--which includes a live performance from Kenny G--says "Get the fuck out, Kenny G."  I may be misquoting, but the point is who among us hasn't wanted to throw Kenny G out of their house?  And then there's the line from The Big Sick, a bit canned, but good.  When asked what he thinks of 9/11, Kumail Nanjiani replies "It was a tragedy. I mean we lost 19 of our best guys."

Hottest New Fad:  Sex with fruit, as demonstrated by Tiffany Haddish and a grapefruit in Girls Trip and Timothee Chalamet and a peach in Call Me By Your Name.

Most Tired New Plot Device:  Going viral.  Videos went viral in The Comedian, Ingrid Goes West, Brigsby Bear, The Hero, The Square and probably a few others I forget.  It went from a novel twist to a tired plot device almost overnight.

Most Generic Title: Life.  Though ironic considering the film was death at the box office.

Best Ending: The Florida Project--made all the better in that it was shot without permission.

Worst Ending: The Post.  It's already got a fine ending, with Meryl Streep as Kay Graham having gone through one crisis blissfully unaware that Watergate is just around the corner.  But Steven Spielberg can never leave well enough alone, and actually shows us the break-in.

Worst Plot TwistDownsizing has a decent premise, but at a certain point simply drops everything to go in a direction no one cares about (and leaves behind some plots and characters which could have been fun).

Least PlotCall Me By Your Name.  Take as long a bathroom break as you like, it won't make any difference.

Movie That Was Better Than It Had Any Right To Be: Wonder looked so sappy I didn't even want to see it for $2 at the sub-run theatre.  But, while it may be no classic, it actually got to me.

Best Musical NumberIt's one of the songs in Band Aid--can't remember which.  I can't find any clips from the movie, so here's something from the soundtrack.



Babette's Feast Award For Best Food Porn:  Slim pickings this year, but they did serve some pretty nice stuff in Beatriz At Dinner.

Worst Chef Award:  Julianne Moore prepares coffee with lye and a poisoned PB&J in Suburbicon.  As if that's not enough, in Kingsman, she makes and serves a humanburger.

Taylor Kitsch Award For The Actor Whom Producers Mistook For A Star:  Dane DeHaan, who starred in three major flops, A Cure For Wellness, Tulip Fever and perhaps the disaster of the year, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets.  Maybe he'll make a comeback, but he'll have to work his way back to the top.

Jason Statham Award For Actor Who Appears In One Bad Film After Another But Still Manages To Be Appealing:  Brie Larson, who in 2017 was seen in Free Fire, The Glass Castle and Kong: Skull Island.

You Me And Dupree Award For The Film That While Nominally A Hollywood Comedy Is Actually A Surrealist Masterpiece Where Plot Points Are Introduced And Dropped For No Reason, Dialogue Is Unrelated To The Action, And Characters Do Things That Bear No Resemblance To How Humans Act: Home Again

House Of Sand And Fog Award For Miserable People Doing Miserable Things That Ends Up In Misery: Wonder Wheel

Worst Score:  A tie.  An obnoxious electronic score in Blade Runner 2049 and an annoyingly insistent piano-based score in Phantom Thread.

Best Translation:  How do you translate the French title Visages, Villages?  Simple.  Faces Places.  Runner-up: In Okja, a Korean-American tells a Korean girl "Try learning English.  It opens new doors!," according to the subtitles.  That's something Korean kids hear all the time.  What he actually says is "My name is Koo Soon-bum" which apparently sounds really stupid in Korean and I guess doesn't translate well.

Saddest Death:  The great Admiral Ackbar was dispatched in the latest Star Wars with even less ceremony than Boba Fett enjoyed.

Best Love Letter To A CityColumbus for Columbus (Indiana).  Runner-up: Lady Bird for Sacramento.


TRENDS AND OBSERVATIONS

Hidden Figures: 7 Witches, 13 Minutes, Table 19, Twenty Two, 47 Meters Down, Fifty Shades Darker, 9/11, The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, 1945, Blade Runner 2049

Zootopia: A Dog's Purpose, War For The Planet Of The Apes, Lady Bird, My Little Pony, The Zookeeper's Wife, Rock Dog, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (from the director of Dogtooth and Lobster), Brigsby Bear, Beach Rats

Call Me By My Name: Logan, Ferdinand, King Arthur, Victoria And Adbul, Megan Leavey, Roman J. Israel Esq., Marshall, Maudie, Norman, My Cousin Rachel, LBJ, I Tonya, Jane, Patti Cakes, Wilson, Coco, Tom Of Finland, I Daniel Blake, Dean, Marjorie Prime, Harold And Lillian

Where It's At: Dunkirk, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Detroit, The Lost City Of Z, Paris Can Wait, The Florida Project, A United Kingdom, A Trip To Spain, Columbus, California Typewriter

I Do Declare!: Leap!, mother!, We Love You Sally Carmichael!, Hare Krishna!

For A Song: Baby Driver, The Only Living Boy In New York, All Eyez On Me, Unforgettable, Song To Song

Impacted Colon: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Alien: Covenant, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Smurfs: The Lost Village, Annabelle: Creation, xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage, King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, Underworld: Blood Wars, The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature, My Little Pony: The Movie, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power, Take Every Wave: The Life Of Laird Hamilton, David Lynch: The Art Life, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, Buena Vista Social Club: Adios

Not Very Bright Fifty Shades Darker, The Dark Tower, The Darkest Hour, Let There Be Light

Confusion At The Box Office:  There was a film called Logan, a film called Lucky and a film called Logan Lucky--at a certain point, they're just messing with you.  Also, it was the year of Wonder--Wonder, Wonderstruck, Wonder Woman, Wonder Wheel.  And did I mention Lady Bird and LBJ were released the same day?  By the way, which would you rather see, The Square or The Circle or The Void?

Matt Damon Lied To Me:  The trailers for Damon's two movies, Suburbicon and Downsizing, both gave a false view of their films--presumably because the trailer-makers knew what was wrong with them (so why didn't the filmmakers?)

Unintentionally Killing A Deer Get Out, A Cure For Wellness (though, oddly enough, there were no deer killed in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer)

Double Trouble:  Julianne Moore plays dual roles in two movies, Wonderstruck and Suburbicon  (She was also in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which makes for five roles overall.).

Really Bad ParentsBrigsby Bear, The Glass Castle, Wilson, Wakefield, The Meyerowitz Stories, I Tonya

It's Not Central To The Plot, But Hey, American Sure Was Racist Circa 1960Suburbicon, The Shape Of Water

Monster Of Choice:  Ghosts, in A Ghost Story, Personal Shopper, Annabelle: Creation, Coco, Marjorie Prime and maybe that thing in It.

You Can't Trust John Lithgow:  The actor plays three different kinds of untrustworthy in Pitch Perfect 3, Beatriz At Dinner and Daddy's Home 2. 

Deaf,  Dumb And Blind:  Wonderstruck (deaf), The Shape Of Water (dumb) and Get Out (blind)
 

RANKINGS

GOOD:
 
Logan, The Last Laugh, Song To Song, David Lynch: The Art Life, Their Finest, Harold And Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, Wonder Woman, Band Aid, Maudie, Okja, The Trip To Spain, Good Time, Ingrid Goes West, Logan Lucky, California Typewriter, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Happy Death Day, Lady Bird, Wait For Your Laugh, Jane, Wonder, The Disaster Artist, The Shape Of Water, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, Molly's Game, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

OKAY:

Detour, Split, War On Everyone, MA, Get Out, The Girl With All The Gifts, Table 19, Love & Taxes, Personal Shopper, T2 Trainspotting, Wilson, Kedi, The Zookeeper's Wife, Colossal, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, The Lost City Of Z, Wakefield, It Comes At Night, The Hero, The Little Hours, Girls Trip, Atomic Blonde, Brigsby Bear, It, Battle Of The Sexes, Brad's Status, The Tiger Hunter, Lucky, The Foreigner, The Meyerowitz Stories, Wonderstruck, Marshall, Loving Vincent, Coco, Darkest Hour, Mudbound, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Ballad Of Lefty Brown, Phantom Thread, All The Money In The World, Hostiles


NOT OKAY:

The Book Of Love, The Comedian, John Wick: Chapter 2, The LEGO Batman Movie, A Cure For Wellness, Catfight, Kong: Skull Island, First Fight, Gifted, Free Fire, The Circle, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, The Fate Of The Furious, Snatched, Beatriz At Dinner, Cars 3, Going In Style, Rough Night, War For The Planet Of The Apes, Baywatch, Dunkirk, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, The House, The Hitman's Bodyguard, Beach Rats, The Glass Castle, Marjorie Prime, Home Again, American Assassin, Mother!, American Made, The Mountain Between Us, Blade Runner 2049, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, The Square, Murder on The Orient Express, Justice League, CHIPS, Roman J. Israel Esq., Call Me By Your Name, Daddy's Home 2, Wonder Wheel, A Bad Moms Christmas, Suburbicon, The Greatest Showman, Life, Downsizing, Pitch Perfect 3
 

TOP FIFTEEN (in alphabetical order) 

Baby Driver

An action film with beautiful choreography.  Though I wonder if in future years it'll be remembered as the last film they let Kevin Spacey make.

The Big Sick

Always nice to see a romantic comedy that manages to be both.  Usually it's neither.

Columbus

A contemplative film.  That's not always a compliment, but, inspired by Ozu, Columbus is a beautiful meditation on life, longing and architecture.

Faces Places

Agnes Varda and JR drove across France, making public art along the way, and ended up with a fine movie.

The Florida Project

It's about particular people in a particular place with a particular issue, but it's really about the joys and sorrows of childhood.

A Ghost Story

Took a premise that could have been just silly and stuck with it, going deeper than seemed possible at first.

Gook

A tale of the Asian-American and African-American community during the 1992 L.A. riots.  Doesn't quite land the third act, but well-observed up to that point.

I, Tonya

One of the funniest films of the year, and one of the most touching.  I never really thought much of Tonya Harding, but this film (no matter how accurate it is--the movie admits no one will ever know exactly what happened) makes you care about her.

Norman

The full title tells you the story: "The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer."  We've all known people like this, who need to get close to important people to feel important themselves.  Maybe we can see a bit of ourselves in him, which is what makes this movie hard to watch.  (There's a money quote: "Hard to watch"--LAGuy)

The Post

Spielberg and a fine cast take a well known story about journalism and turn it into an exciting thriller.  (Okay, they simplified and rearranged, but that's why it's a movie and not a book.)

Spider-Man Homecoming

I don't know if I've liked any of the Spider-Man films till this one.  Maybe the difference is you really believe in the characters here.

Thor: Ragnarok

Who said you can't have fun in a superhero movie?

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

A rarity--a film with a plot you can't predict (due to the talent, not the incompetence, of the writer-director).

Wind River

A powerful crime drama where desolation is a central character.

Your Name

The Japanese seem to take animation more seriously.  Sure it's a cartoon, but the characters should be as alive in any film.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Gripes Of Roth

I just read the collected nonfiction of Philip Roth.  He's one of our best writers, with a keen perception of the human condition.  But being a liberal practically from birth, he can't help but attack whatever Republican is in office at the time, which becomes clear as you go through the years.

For instance, in 1960, he wrote a much talked about essay, "Writing In America Today." His thesis: America is in such a weird state that it's hard for writers to keep up. Who could invent Charles Van Doren, or Sherman Adams?  Or Dwight David Eisenhower?

The sentiment hasn't aged well, but, after all, he was an up-and-comer then, not yet 30, so perhaps he can be forgiven for his lack of perspective.  But he never seemed to learn, at least not for partisan purposes.

He couldn't attack Nixon enough (including in the 1960 essay, so it was a thing with Roth).  But why give examples, when he wrote an entire novel in 1971, Our Gang, just to get at Tricky Dick. (Gore Vidal did a similar thing around the same time with his play An Evening With Richard Nixon.)

You think Roth would get it out of his system, but every the rule became every new Republican president had to be unprecedentedly evil or stupid or unqualified or dangerous.

So we get this:

Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness, when, in fact, he would have succeeded, as prophetic sentry, just where Orwell failed [....] It wasn't Big Brother who'd be watching us from the screen, but we who'd be watching a terrifyingly powerful world leader with the soul of an amiable, soap opera grandmother, the values of a civic-minded Beverly Hills Cadillac dealer, and the historical background and intellectual equipment of a high school senior in a June Allyson musical.

And this:

And now Aristophanes [...] has given us George W. Bush, a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one...

Roth stopped writing a few years ago.  Perhaps he'll come out of retirement to do a fill-in-the-blanks piece on Donald Trump.

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