Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Black, Back To Back

I was rewatching a few episodes of Black Mirror.  The anthology series, available on Netflix, has had four seasons, which (because it's British) amounts to 19 episodes, so it wouldn't be hard to binge watch them all over a long weekend.  (The fifth season is being filmed right now, though the release date has not been announced).

It's written and created by Charlie Brooker, and is sort of a modern-day Twilight Zone, mixing sci-fi and horror.  I don't know how big the audience is, but it's highly regarded, and deserves to be.  The episodes have a high level of imagination and wit, and there are very few clunkers. 

If I have any problem with the show, it's that it's repeated certain tropes too often. Two ideas in particular--a world where people have implants so they--or others--can re-see and re-hear anything that's happened to them, and the transfer of consciousness to a computer code--have been used several times.  These are solid, sci-fi ideas, but it's starting to feel like they're going to the well too often. (Also, it appears, especially in the fourth season, that all the episodes are taking place in the same future, which I think is a mistake)

Anyway, I've looked on the internet to see how fans rate episodes.  I've noticed, at least in a few cases, we seem to disagree.  So the following is my ranking, from bottom to top, of all the episodes.  Note that episodes within one or two places are another are close to the same in quality--perhaps I simply should have listed a few different quality categories and ordered the episodes according to which group they fit in.

19 "Playtest" -- This episode is reasonably popular but I hated it--it's one of those stories where you're never sure what's real and what's going on in someone's mind, and I generally find that kind of plot annoying.

18 "Crocodile" -- About someone going to great lengths to cover up a crime--I had trouble buying it.

17 "Arkangel" -- The story of an overprotective mother--a bit stretched out, and they've done this type of plot better on other episodes.

16 "Entire History Of You" -- Apparently an audience favorite, but I didn't like the protagonist and the actions he took.

15 "National Anthem" -- The first episode, and odd in that it essentially takes place in the present--overall sort of a joke episode, and a bit hard to buy, but presented pretty well.

14 "Shut Up And Dance" -- Memorable in that it's probably the most grueling of all the episodes to watch.

13 "The Waldo Moment" -- On of the least favorite episodes, but I sort of like it--a bit overdone, satirically, and not that sci-fi, but it kept me interested.

12 "Be Right Back" -- One of the sweeter episodes, the only reason it isn't rated higher is it's a bit soft.

11 "Hang The DJ" -- A contemplation of love and social control, pretty well done.

10 "Men Against Fire" -- Not an audience favorite, but I thought it had good action and made its point fairly well.

9 "Black Museum" -- Considered a top episode, and I guess it is--if I have any problem, it's that it's sort of a sequel to "White Christmas" and isn't quite as strong.

8 "Hated In The Nation" -- At 89 minutes, the longest episode--really a movie--with a fascinating idea and, though there's plenty of horror and dread, perhaps some optimism (rare in Black Mirror).

7 "Metalhead" -- At 41 minutes, the shortest episode, and one of the least liked, but I think the antagonist is handled really well and the story is told with power and simplicity.

6 "White Bear" --  Not an audience favorite, but I think its presentation, where we're thrown into a world we don't understand, to its horrifying conclusion, is handled beautifully.

5 "Fifteen Million Merits" -- A very well-imagined future, though I'm not sure if I liked the ending.

4. "USS Callister" -- though often comic, especially Jesse Plemons' take on Captain Kirk, it's also one of the most horrifying episodes.

3 "Nosedive" -- Perhaps the funniest episode, but also one of the most biting.

2 "San Junipero" -- The plot slowly reveals what's happening and takes you places you didn't expect.

1 "White Christmas" -- Really a trilogy of stories, each one powerful, and in the end we see how they tie together.

Monday, July 30, 2018

It's Alright

I saw Caddyshack: The Making Of A Hollywood Cinderella Story in my library and checked it out.  I can't imagine buying it since I don't like the movie much.  At least author Chris Nashawaty admits the film was not well-received in its day, and only a modest hit.  However, since then, it's become a cult classic, its lines quoted by millions.

The book itself, while well-researched and written in a lively manner, is full of padding.  At about 250 pages of text, you've got to get past page 100 before you come to the actual making of the movie.  Before then, Nashaway tells us the story of National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and Animal House, which all lead up to Caddyshack.  These are fascinating stories, but they've been told elsewhere at greater length.

Once he gets to the making of the movie, the book does paint quite a picture.  This was a cocaine movie.  The men behind it, particularly Harold Ramis (director and co-writer) and Doug Kenney (producer and co-writer), had created the blockbuster Animal House and so were given carte blanche, but while talented writers, they knew a lot more about getting high than making a major motion picture.

Ramis and Kenney, along with third writer Brian Doyle-Murray, were trying to tell a story about a class struggle in a country club, with a central love triangle between two caddies and the young woman they fight for.  But the script was too long and all over the place, Ramis--a first time director--didn't know how to structure things, and Kenney was mostly concerned with making sure his dealer delivered on time.

As opposed to Animal House, which had a funnier script, a director who knew how to stick to the story, and--even with numerous characters and episodes--a core about the underdogs versus the snobs that was central to the plot, Caddyshack spun off in all directions.  Especially since the stars--and the studio demanded stars--Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight--were playing what were essentially background characters.

After a chaotic shoot, Ramis and Kenney went into the editing room and came out with a disastrous four-and-a-half-hour rough cut.  There was funny stuff, but it didn't hang together.  Editors were hired to sculpt it into something, and producer Jon Peters helped "save" the film by seeing to it they shot more material to emphasize the gopher subplot. And, needless to say, the big names were emphasized and the central story moved more into the background.

It's a sign of how far the film changed that the original had a final scene where the main caddy flies away on an airplane into his future, while the finished version has Dangerfield, out of nowhere, saying "Hey, everybody, we're all gonna get laid!"

Kenney, who felt the film had been taken away from him (not unlike how he felt about Animal House) was disconsolate.  At a promotional press conference he denounced the film and attacked the critics before passing out. Soon after its release he flew to Hawaii and, apparently in an accident, fell off a cliff and died.

But, in an age of home video, the film lived on. People could replay the little bits that they loved over and over (and ignore the boring caddy plot).  It became a "classic" without being very good.  Not that there's no funny stuff.  Though Murray and Dangerfield get the most attention, I think this film captures the comic side of Chevy Chase that he showed on SNL better than any other film. But let's stop pretending it's anything other than a fitfully entertaining movie.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Not Yet

I just read Andrew Santella's book Soon: An Overdue History Of Procrastination.

Procrastination is an odd thing. (It's also sort of odd there's a word for it.  Do other languages have an equivalent?)  It's weird that we know we have to do something and we need to do it before too long, but somehow we just can't get started.

Why are some people like this (including me)?  I don't know.  Though, in my experience, once you get started, it's a lot easier to keep going.

One of Santella's historical examples is Darwin.  He sat on his theory of evolution for over twenty years before publishing.  Though Darwin, I'd say, had understandable reasons.

First, the idea of evolution was already in the air, and some people were making poor arguments on its behalf.  Darwin wanted to get it right. Being a methodical person, he did a lot of research--not necessarily to prove evolution, but to became a top naturalist. (And he did it all at home--once he got a place in the suburbs of London, he rarely left.)

But also, he was aware of the revolutionary impact of his theory, and he was not a revolutionary himself.  He had notoriously poor health--he suffered from headaches, exhaustion, anxiety, fainting, vomiting, cramps and bloating, among other problems.  The last thing he wanted was the upset of controversy.

Darwin may have waited even longer to publish if in 1858 he hadn't received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace sketching out the same theory as Darwin's.  So they published a paper together and, in 1859, Darwin published Origin Of Species (which was a shortened version of his full argument, he hastened to add).

So is this truly procrastination?  He was already a noted naturalist before he wrote about evolution, and, as a gentleman scientist, had no pressure to publish anything in particular.  Is procrastination waiting to do anything, or is there a requirement that it's something you're supposed to do?

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Tool Fool

I was reading a piece, doesn't matter what about, when I ran across this:

...William of Ockham--of Occam's razor fame--would disagree.  The simplest solution is usually the right one.

This is wrong.  What Occam's razor insists is you shouldn't needlessly multiply factors in explaining something.  This makes sense, since each factor could be wrong, so the more of them you depend on, the more likely it may be your reasoning is in error.

But this doesn't mean the simplest explanation is usually right.  I would guess it usually isn't.  If you know nothing else, I suppose you should prefer the simplest explanation over any other (though not over all others combined).  But often things are complex, and you may have good reason to posit a complex explanation.

Occan's razor is a useful logical tool, but let's get it right first.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Lear Steer

In his Hollywood Reporter review of Ian McKellen' latest King Lear, Demetrios Matheou writes:

And so Shakespeare, the playwright whose finger somehow never leaves his nation's pulse, seems to be writing for Brexit Britain, a country tipped towards the precipice by ambition, hubris and lies, dodgy negotiations and factions that can't stop stabbing each other in the back.

Matheou can think what he likes, but he should leave his political beliefs out of his review.

It's easy enough to recruit Shakespeare to your point of view.  But there's no reason Lear (or any play by Shakespeare) relates to Brexit Britain--whatever you take that to mean--any more than it relates to Britain ten years ago, or ten years from now (even if this were McKellen's explicit intent).

If you had the inclination, you could say King Lear points toward the "ambition, hubris and lies" of the EU, or the American President (whichever one is in office at the time), or Angela Merkel or pretty much any leader anytime.  This is pure waste motion that no decent critic should attempt.

Shakespeare isn't, and shouldn't be, especially known for having his finger on the British national pulse.  That cheapens him.  What he's got is insight into the human condition and transcendent poetry, good for any people anywhere.

In fact, Shakespeare's been celebrated for how he doesn't let any political opinions get in the way of his artistic beauty--"negative capability," as Keats put it.

Recruiting Shakespeare for rather shallow shots at the present-day scene isn't just dumb politics, it's bad criticism.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

SK

Stanley Kubrick would have turned 90 today, except he died in 1999.  Considering how long he took to make his films, he must have figured he'd live to be 150.

Some call him the greatest director of all, but I'm of two minds about him.  He's certainly original, and even his weakest work offers something different, but the truth is only one of his films, Dr. Strangelove (1964), gets my full support.  Kubrick, who generally doesn't display much of a sense of humor, somehow turned out the perfect dark, satirical comedy.

But aside from that, almost every film is flawed, many seriously.

His earliest features I'll ignore (as he did)--Fear And Desire (1953) and Killer's Kiss (1955) show a guy with a low budget who's still learning.  His first major film is The Killing, and it's pretty good, if not especially significant.  His next, Paths Of Glory (1957), is the one that truly put him on the map, and while it's a pretty solid anti-war film, and directed with a sure hand, I'm not sure if it's dated that well.

Then comes the epic Spartacus (1960), a project that was essentially work for hire.  Kubrick didn't initiate it (in fact, he replaced the original director, Anthony Mann, after shooting began).  It's not bad, though Kubrick would disavow it.

Now we come into the Kubrick era where he has prestige, money and an iron will, and every film he made was pretty much to his specifications. First we get Lolita (1962).  It starts as a decent satirical comedy of social mores, but weakens as it goes on, and goes on far too long.  The performances by James Mason, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers are fascinating, but it just falls short. (He also couldn't quite go all the way with the material provided by the novel, though considering the times it's amazing he made it at all.  Indeed, the ads back then asked "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?")

Next is Strangelove, which I've already noted is his one definite classic.

Then comes his most famous movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Though technically a marvel, it was not treated well by the critics, originally.  Most came around and today it makes top ten lists, but I think they got it right the first time.  (I suppose on re-viewing, since you know nothing much is going to happen, you don't get too disappointed.)

Kubrick was smart to make it cryptic, since what's going on is less than meets the eye.  It is visually fascinating, and, as I often say, there's a fairly interesting 80-minute movie about a rogue computer packed inside what is otherwise pretentious nonsense.  2001 does lead one to ask how can it can be a failure when one returns to it so many times, even as its silliness is still out there for everyone to see.

Next, another major title, A Clockwork Orange (1971). Some fine scenes, and an intriguing lead performance from Malcolm McDowell.  But the ideas behind the whole thing, once again, are fairly shallow, and the film is actually pretty ugly.  However, like 2001, it's still a film you can return to even as you recognize its deep flaws.

The next film I can't make any excuses for.  A fair number have tried to blow up Barry Lyndon (1975) into a masterpiece, but it's a three-hour bore.  It looks great, but the story is tiresome and the acting isn't much. (In general, especially in his later films, Kubrick gets weird performances from his actors.  Maybe they get exhausted and stop acting like humans, which is just how Kubrick likes it.)

Next is another disappointment--The Shining.  It was not treated well when it came out, but is now considered a horror classic.  You'd think a horror film should at least be scary, but I guess that's not what matters here.  A great set, but I have to agree with Stephen King--the car looks good, but it's got no engine.

Then there's Full Metal Jacket (1987).  It's oddly structured.  You've got this intense 40-minute short about basic training starring R. Lee Ermey, followed by a rather dull army film set in Vietnam.  I've watched the first act a number of times, after which I change the channel.

Then comes his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  I suppose this was supposed to be sexy, or spooky, or riveting, or something.  Instead, it just comes across as bizarre.  People acting strange as Tom Cruise takes a journey that doesn't really go anywhere. (The one scene I like is near the end, when he has a long talk with Sydney Pollack.  Many critics thought it was too expository, but I don't believe a word Pollack is saying.) Kubrick died while the film was still in editing, though there seems to be some dispute about this. Maybe it would have been a bit tighter, but I don't think he could have made it work.

So that's it.  A fairly light filmography compared to many great directors, but he made films the way he wanted.  And people still watch them.  I don't think he could have asked for much more.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Annual Annie or Ross Ritual

Hey, it's the 88th birthday of Annie Ross.  She's best known as the female third of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, though she had a notable solo career both as an actor and singer.






Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What's Up, Doc?

There are numerous documentaries exhibited in theatres each year, but they live in a world of lowered expectations compared to your latest action epic.  Whereas Hollywood blockbusters hope to gross hundreds of millions, for all the thousands of documentaries that have been released, only 27 have made more than $10 million. (Four of them are from Michael Moore, the undisputed king of docs, moneywise.)  $10 million+ is essentially blockbuster status for a documentary.

But this year documentaries are--within their limited standards--hot.  RBG--the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story--has made over $13 million.  Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the story of Mr. Rogers, has made over $18 million and looks like it'll pass $20 million.  And now Three Identical Strangers, the story behind separated triplets, has made over $4 million with a decent shot of making it to $10 million.  And it's only July.

I wouldn't say this represents a trend, since these three films are very different.  But it's worth noting if you tell an intriguing story on a subject people care about, there's an audience.  I admit I often prefer documentaries since the Hollywood formula is so predictable, while you're never quite sure what will happen in real life.

Monday, July 23, 2018

OH

Oscar Hammerstein died on this day in 1960.  He had quite a career--two, in fact.

Born into a show biz family, his parents would have preferred he become a lawyer, but he couldn't help himself. He became a top book writer and lyricist for Broadway musicals in the 1920s, creating, among other hits, the tremendously successful and influential Show Boat in 1927.

The 30s weren't nearly as successful, and for about a decade he couldn't buy a hit show.  Then in the early 40s composer Richard Rodgers, then at the height of his popularity, asked Hammerstein to collaborate since his regular partner, Lorenz Hart, was becoming unreliable due to alcoholism.  (Hart would die in 1943.)

The new team was a perfect fit.  They both loved the theatre (and, being canny businessmen, loved making money).  Hammerstein wanted to use all aspects of the musical--songs, book and dance--to tell a unified story, as was rarely done in those days.  He and Rodgers rang in the modern age of the integrated musical with their smash hit Oklahoma! in 1943.  They followed over the next 16 years with four major hits--Carousel, South Pacific, The King And I and The Sound Of Music--along with a few flops, a minor hit (Flower Drum Song) and some movie and TV work (State Fair and Cinderella).

I admit Hammerstein isn't always to my taste.  He can be quite sappy and cloying, overly solemn, and too folksy by half.  (If I'm going to play some songs, I'd probably rather hear Rodgers and Hart, even though Hart's work was sometimes slapdash, while Hammerstein labored over each lyric.) But Hammerstein was telling stories that mattered to him, and ending up mattering to millions.

There's a new book out about Rodgers and Hammerstein, Something Wonderful by Todd Purdum, which is a good starting point if you want to know more.  I wouldn't say Purdum has any startling revelations, but he does a solid job spelling out Hammerstein's career, giving him a chapter for his early work and then going into detail over every show with Rodgers.  Meanwhile, the best of R&H is sturdy enough that someone, somewhere is putting on one of their shows tonight.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Colonization

Colony has been canceled after three seasons. Too bad.  The final episode will air on Wednesday.  You've probably never heard of it, which would help explain the cancelation.

Ever since Lost left the air (in 2010!) I've been looking for a replacement. Lord know there have been a ton of knock-offs, but nothing's really compared.  Still, Colony was better than nothing--a show that had a decent mix of action, sci-fi and mystery.  No surprise that one of its creators was Carlton Cuse, who ran Lost with Damon Lindelof.

Colony wasn't deep, but it kept moving forward.  The premise was aliens have colonized Earth and cordoned off various cities, appointing human collaborators to keep citizens in line--partly by threatening lawbreakers with a trip to the "Factory," whatever that is. The first season is set mostly in the Los Angeles bloc.  It centers on the Bowman family.  The father, played by Lost alumnus, Josh Holloway, works for the bloc authority hunting down members of the resistance, while his wife, played by Sarah Wayne Callies of The Walking Dead, is actually in the resistance.  Among the costars was Peter Jacobson--who I know best from House--as the weaselly but cunning governor of the Los Angeles bloc.

Every week featured plenty of activity, and there were a lot of questions that needed to be answered.  Who are the aliens?  What do they want?  What and where is the Factory?  What are the other colonies like?  Was the whole alien invasion just a cover story to explain the occupation? Who really runs the resistance?

There were answers along the way (provided faster than in Lost, I'd say).  By the third season, mom and dad Bowman, with their three kids, had escaped from Los Angeles with valuable information on the aliens.  They end up in a resistance camp and later in Seattle, a new sort of colony.  And as the season is ending, it looks like the aliens' plans are finally coming to fruition.

But now we'll never know.  So I'll miss the show.  It didn't have the poetry or depth of Lost (which perhaps was provided by partner Lindelof--his post-Lost show, Leftovers, which I loved, had plenty of poetry and depth, if less overt action), but it could do until the real thing came along.

PS  I just watched the season finale, which turned out to be the show's finale.  Pretty much every character is left hanging as the big war commences.  Oh well.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Not An Acquired Taste

Today is National Junk Food Day. You don't really need a day for this.  It's not like you need to remind people to eat junk.

To be fair, junk food tastes great.  (Can it be junk food if it doesn't?).  I don't know where the phrase or the idea originated, but we can be proud.  That junk food exists at all is a sign of success.  For most of human history, people had to worry most of the time that they'd starve to death.  Now we've got so much we can gorge on empty calories with a cheap price.

I think we should distinguish between two kinds of junk food.  First, there are the packaged snacks, like chips and sugary stuff.  Then there are the franchise restaurants serving burgers or pizza or chicken or whatever.  Somehow, the two categories seem different.

So if you avoid junk food, why not indulge a little today?  To everyone else, I guess do whatever you do anyway.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Not Just For Laughs

I just read Why Comics? by Hillary Chute.  While it nods to older, more conventional formats, it's mostly about underground comics and graphic novels.

The book looks into various subjects comic artists take on, chapter by chapter, such as sex, superheroes, war and the suburbs.  It's a physically heavy book, by the way, since it's printed on shiny, high-quality paper--presumably to ensure the many reproductions are given their due.

The chapters generally concentrate on a few big names.  They're the usual suspects: Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Harvey Pekar, Gary Panter, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Alison Bechdel, Jaime Hernandez, Marjane Satrapi and so on.

The book, written in a no-nonsense style, takes comics seriously.  A few decades ago, very few did, but now comics are taught in colleges, and artwork from comic artists appears in museums.

It makes sense.  Comics can take on anything--personal, political, humorous, tragic--and handle the subject as no other art form can.  Both the verbal and the visual matter, as does how they mix--sometimes they complement each other, but sometimes they clash.

Comics have their own code, too, much of which we take for granted.  For instance, we understand a word balloon, and wouldn't confuse it with a thought balloon.  And storytelling techniques are different from other formats, as panels exist in time and place, but often it's what's in-between them that matters most.

As the book demonstrates, all great comic artists have their own style, whether it's heavily shaded or in vibrant color, precisely drawn or intentionally sloppy.  Some tell stories in a simple, straightforward manner, while others require close reading.  Some have so many words you can barely see the characters, while others use only pictures.

I wouldn't say comics have the respectability of something like novels just yet.  The question is will they last.  If, in a hundred years from now, today's top names are still being read, they'll have passed the test.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Trophy That Should Atrophy

The ESPYS were on last night.  I didn't watch them.  I never watch them.

I don't get it.  Why would you have a show to give awards to sports stars?  Sure, with actors I understand.  They're not normally in competition, so giving awards for their artistry is kind of fun (even if some believe they shouldn't be doing it).

But sports?  They're already involved in competition.  And they have awards.  If you win you get a medal or something.  A Super Bowl Ring.  A Stanley Cup. And, more important, you already know you won--everyone knows you won--so you have a sense of accomplishment.

For that matter, they have other awards if when you don't necessarily win the championship.  If you have an outstanding season, you can win an MVP awards.  Many sports have other specific awards that are voted on--the Cy Young Award, the Lady Byng Trophy and so on.

So what's the point of more awards?  Which is why I don't watch.  The awards are unnecessary as is my viewership.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Outfoxed

I just read Vanda Krefft's The Man Who Made The Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox.

I've always been fascinating by the early days of the cinema, so I'd heard of Fox, but I knew him for one basic reason: he was the power-mad mogul who founded Fox Studios but then tried to buy MGM's theatres in 1929 and lost everything due to the Depression.  It was a cautionary tale, but Krefft's book tells the full story.

And I mean full.  The book, all in, is over 900 pages, and goes into mind-numbing detail about how Fox was destroyed.  Even so, that's only part of the story.  Much of it is about how Fox grew up poor and pulled himself (and his family--his father was not much of a provider) up by his bootstraps, and how he got into the movie business when it wasn't yet respectable and built one of the biggest studios in the silent era.

It tells about the producers he hired, and the big-name directors--John Ford, Raoul Walsh, F. W. Murnau--as well as the major stars who kept the studio afloat--Theda Bara, Tom Mix, Janet Gaynor and so on.

Fox, working in New York, oversaw the productions, but his heart seemed to be more in purchasing theatres, keeping costs down (when necessary), and steering a course that kept his business profitable.  In the early days, he had to fight off the Edison Trust (which owned patents and tried to shut down filmmakers who didn't go along with them) and then later, other moguls who wanted to swallow up film companies.  Fox studios was special, in that it was the only one of the majors in those days that was fully independent, not owing anything to Wall Street bankers.

Fox was also far-seeing when it came to technology.  He invested heavily in developing sound films.  Though Warner Brothers is famous for introducing sound with The Jazz Singer, they used sound-on-disc, which never caught on.  It was Fox's sound-on-film that became the industry standard.

When Marcus Loew died--the guy who founded Loews, Inc, which ran MGM--Fox (and others, such as Paramount's tough Adolph Zukor) saw the possibility of buying the corporation's cinemas and becoming the big guy on the block.  But his timing was off, and he found himself with a huge white elephant when the stock market crashed.

What follows, in the book, is hundreds of pages in excruciating detail of the fallout. (Actually, if you like reading about business, and not movies, this might be the fun part.)  It took months of painful back-and-forth negotiations, but Fox, who'd built his company up from nothing, was forced out, and replaced by money people who knew nothing of movies and ran the studio into the ground.

I always sort of figured that Fox died soon after, having nothing to live for.  Actually, he died in 1952, so he got to think about this disaster for years. In fact, the 1930s was a time of serious mental deterioration for Fox, as he couldn't get over how his life's work had been taken from him. To add insult to injury, a 1937 warehouse fire destroyed most of the films his studio made in the silent era, which is why so little is known of the early Fox output.  (The later Fox films, after the studio was merged with Twentieth Century Films and run by Darryl Zanuck, are still available, thank goodness.)

Litigation over various issues continued into the 1930s and Fox--a man who'd always prided himself on his high-mindedness--got into trouble for bribing judges in one of his court cases and ended up spending some time in prison.  But Krefft's profile is sympathetic.  And I assume generally accurate--if the guy was just a swindler, how do you explain the decades when he ran a legitimate, thriving film business?

I don't know how many will read this book, since the climax--Fox's fall--is hard to get through.  But maybe it will help put William Fox, who tended to stay behind the scenes, back up there with other big names as one of the founders of Hollywood.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes

Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, has taken over.  People seem to know the Rotten Tomatoes score of every film.

Many filmmakers have bemoaned this website.  I guess they liked it better when the public didn't know their film was a stinker.  Personally, I don't think RT has made that big a difference.  For one thing, word of mouth used to spread anyway--it's just a bit faster.  And if your film has the people's approval but not the critics, RT can't stop it.  Quite a few movies are immune to what the critics say.

Actually, the problem was generally in the other direction.  Quite a few times I recall someone giving an impression on a film that they hadn't seen, but read about in the local paper--it didn't matter if the local critic was an outlier, that was the impression people had.

In general, the main films that are affected by critical consensus are art films, but it's been that way for a long time.  And people who see art films are more likely to check what the critics are saying, anyway.  RT just makes their job a bit easier. But if you think your mega-budget film is being destroyed by RT, I doubt it.  It's probably the film itself.

Not that RT doesn't have flaws.  It mixes all kinds of critics--ones that are tough to please and others who are easy dates.  It also binary--thumbs up or down.  A juicy red tomato is a thumbs up, while a splatted green tomato is a thumbs down.  It adds up the critics and if at least 60% like you, you're a red tomato.

I prefer the Metacritic system, which looks at each review on a scale from 0 to 100, then averages them. (Metacritic also looks at TV, games and music in addition to films.)

And even then, you've got to know how to read the numbers. For instance, critics are often taken in by certain types of films and filmmakers, and downgrade other types.  You often have to factor in their prejudices.

One interesting thing about Rotten Tomatoes, though. It's reversed our feeling about color.  Red means go, green means don't go.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Glimmer

I watched the second season of GLOW on Netflix.  It was fun, though I'm not sure if it matched the first season.  That was about conceiving of the idea of a women's wrestling TV show and gathering all the characters together.  Season two was more about a continuation of what had gone on before.

Also, it wasn't quite clear how successful the show within the show was.  Some signs were that it was a hit of sorts (and was in trouble due to one of the wrestlers turning down the advances of an executive) but at other times it didn't seem like the show was gaining any traction.

But GLOW was definitely entertaining, and has a solid cast.  I've always liked Alison Brie, who plays Ruth Wilder, aka Zoya The Destroya (though this season the writers didn't seem sure how to deal with her personal life).  Also, the show got more deeply into the problems of the second female lead, Betty Gilpin, who plays the divorced Debbie "Liberty Belle" Egan.  And, as in the first season, Marc Maron, as gruff producer-director Sam Sylvia, showed both comic and dramatic chops.

GLOW has a lot of characters, and some get lost in the shuffle.  In fact, too often it seemed like we were cutting to a story we didn't care that much about and losing the main thread. (Perhaps such a large cast would get their due if this were an hour-long drama, instead of a half-hour comedy.)

The oddest half-hour was episode 8 (just like the new Twin Peaks mini-series), which is presented as if it's an episode of the show within the show.  It was enjoyable, but I missed not learning more about the overarching story.

I did have a problem with the finale. It was entertaining, but we were expecting something definite--either the show within the show gets picked up or canceled (though I suppose it can't be entirely ended or there's no more GLOW).  What we got, however, was sort of in-between, and not exactly satisfying.  Still, I'll be watching season 3, if there is one.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Barren

I watched the pilot of Sacha Baron Cohen's new show Who Is America? which premieres tonight on Showtime.  I didn't expect to like it and my expectations were fulfilled.

I have a basic problem with Cohen's act.  He does what he does well, but I find it hard to laugh.  He creates a character, fools others into believing it, and then makes them look foolish. He did this 20 years ago as Ali G, and most famously in his movie Borat.  This latest show has him trying out different characters for each bit (and generally being unrecognizable--I'll give him points for that).

The half-hour pilot has four bits.  Cohen starts by interviewing Bernie Sanders--he asks why can't everyone be in the 1% (actually, a deep question, not that Bernie or Cohen are interested in the implications).  He later shocks a Republican couple who have him to dinner with his stories as an NPR liberal who has his daughter menstruate on the American flag.

He then pretends to be an ex-con who makes feces art, quite interesting to a woman who's a gallery consultant.  Finally, he's an Israeli ex-commando who convinces a lot of Republicans and NRA types to support a program that will put guns into the hands of kindergarteners.

Ironically, I'm guessing a lot of people will be unhappy because he mocks both right and left.  At present we're inundated with political satire, but these shows generally have a consistent point of view (and almost all the same point of view) so the audience knows what it's getting, and can safely laugh at those it doesn't like.

But that's not the problem I have.  In general, I don't enjoy watching someone embarrassing real people, or putting them in a spot.  It's not quite as bad when it's done to a major public figure, since they're used to the limelight and can take it.  But even then, it doesn't usually strike me as particularly funny.

So that's Who Is America? (which, of course, doesn't tell us much about America, not that anyone should be watching it for that reason).

The show has already gotten a lot of publicity for an upcoming interview with Dick Cheney where he signs a waterboarding kit.  It's also made Sarah Palin angry because, she claims, she was duped by Cohen disguised as a disabled vet.

Since I won't be watching future episodes, guess I won't find out how these bits turned out.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Don't Make A Habit Of It

Today is Pandemonium Day. It's a celebration of chaos and disorder.  It was created, apparently, to help people who are stuck in a rut--time to try something different, throw caution to the wind.

I would guess that the younger you are, the more you enjoy a little pandemonium. (The word, by the way, comes from Milton's Paradise Lost.)  In fact, when you're just a little kid, pandemonium comes naturally.

As most people get older, they prefer calm, and a sense of order.  Are these the people Pandemonium Day is meant for?

Life often has one trying to establish order among the chaos--some might even claim that's the definition of life.  But have humans done such a good job regimenting things that we need a little less structure?

We do tend to fall into ruts, no doubt.  But isn't this a good thing?  We couldn't function if everything was novel.  You need to get used to things to get through the day.

Speaking of which, how can we have a regular day each year dedicated to anarchy?  Sounds too much like a ritual for it to be true pandemonium.

Friday, July 13, 2018

TV Pats Itself On The Back

It's hard to write about the Emmys, because there are too many.  Too many nominees, too many shows and people to nominate.  Who has time to see even half of them?

Here's a list of the main awards, as announced yesterday, each category followed by comments.

Drama Series
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
“Game of Thrones”
“This Is Us”
“The Crown”
“The Americans”
“Stranger Things”
“Westworld”
 
No surprises here. Seven nominees, and every one expected.  There was no room for a surprise, like Counterpart or Ozark.  I'd have preferred they didn't nominate Westworld to show they're paying attention, but that wasn't going to happen.  The one I'm missing most here is the updated Twin Peaks, though that was probably too bizarre to make it.  And notice no Homeland--old regulars do fall out of favor.
 
Comedy Series
“Atlanta” (FX)
“Barry” (HBO)
“Black-ish” (ABC)
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO)
“GLOW” (Netflix)
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)
“Silicon Valley” (HBO)
“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)
 
Just as in drama, only one choice from the networks. It's a bit more noticeable here, with eight nominees and favorites like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory missing.   For that matter, the reboots of Will & Grace and Roseanne aren't here (the latter was controversial, but I don't think either would have made it in any case). But Curb Your Enthusiasm is still around.  Some other snubs include Orange Is The New Black (which I stopped watching a couple seasons ago, so I guess I agree), the new Arrested Development and the newly controversial Transparent. It's good to see GLOW here, and I like Silicon Valley, even if it wasn't the strongest season.  Atlanta (which is odd enough it should be in its own category) was a certainty for the list.  Barry was an interesting choice, but the one show I miss most from this list is The Good Place.
 
Limited Series
“The Alienist”
“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”
“Genius: Picasso”
“Godless”
“Patrick Melrose”
 
How limited are these shows?  I didn't watch any.
 
Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Jason Bateman (“Ozark”)
Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”)
Ed Harris (“Westworld”)
Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”)
Milo Ventimiglia (“This Is Us”)
Jeffrey Wright (“Westworld”)
 
Same two guys from This Is Us as last year--guess there wasn't room for a third.  Bateman a bit of a surprise.  Harris and Wright are talented actors, but I don't think either should be here.  Some wanted Liev Schreiber.  Maybe the biggest surprise is no Kit Harrington (who I assume would be in the running for Lead Actor) considering Game Of Thrones has won so many Emmys.  Might also have expected one for J. K. Simmons since he's become an Oscar winner and Emmy voters love to reward movie stars. By far the biggest oversight was Kyle McLachlan's phenomenal performance(s) in Twin Peaks.
 
Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Claire Foy (“The Crown”)
Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”)
Elisabeth Moss (“The Handmaid’s Tale”)
Sandra Oh (“Killing Eve”)
Keri Russell (“The Americans”)
Evan Rachel Wood (“Westworld”)
 
No big surprises, though I don't watch most of these shows.  Some snubs.  In particular, Mandy Moore in This Is Us who had a big scene when hee husband died.  And Chrissy Metz, too. Is the bloom already off the Us rose?  Also, no Emilia Clarke.  I guess relatives sleeping together (once again) on Game Of Thrones turned people off.
 
Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Donald Glover (“Atlanta”)
Bill Hader (“Barry”)
Anthony Anderson (“Black-ish”)
William H. Macy (“Shameless”)
Larry David (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”)
Ted Danson (“The Good Place”)
 
Though a number of these don't excite me, still, pretty much the expected choices.  Both Glover and David produce and write their shows (and though David is memorable, is he much of an actor?).  Good to see Danson getting some attention.  Notice no one here who got caught in the MeToo movement.  And no one nominated playing a character named Sheldon.
 
Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Pamela Adlon (“Better Things”)
Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”)
Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”)
Allison Janney (“Mom”)
Lily Tomlin (“Grace and Frankie”)
Issa Rae (“Insecure”)
 
No big surprises here.  Based just on the pilot of the first season, I'd like to see Rachel Brosnahan win.  Biggest snub here is Alison Brie of GLOW--her series is nominated, why not her?
 
Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
Antonio Banderas (“Genius: Picasso”)
Darren Criss (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”)
Benedict Cumberbatch (“Patrick Melrose”)
Jeff Daniels (“The Looming Tower”)
John Legend (“Jesus Christ Superstar”)
Jesse Plemons (“USS Callister”)
 
Most of these I didn't see.  Intriguing that John Legend is nominated--is it because TV voters love stars of any kind?  Hey, couldn't they have nominted Al Pacino as Paterno--that's quite a snub.  It's be cool to see Jesse Plemons win--his imitation of Captain Kirk (and the basic creepiness behind much of Kirk) cracked me up.
 
Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
Laura Dern (“The Tale”)
Jessica Biel (“The Sinner”)
Michelle Dockery (“Godless”)
Edie Falco (“The Menendez Murders”)
Regina King (“Seven Seconds”)
Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story: Cult”)
 
Once again, didn't see most of these, though Dern was pretty good in The Tale.  (And if Jesse Plemons is nominated for "USS Callister," where's Cristin Milioti from same?)
 
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (“Game of Thrones”)
Peter Dinklage (“Game of Thrones”)
Joseph Fiennes (“The Handmaid’s Tale”)
David Harbour (“Stranger Things”)
Mandy Patinkin (“Homeland”)
Matt Smith (“The Crown”)
 
Finally some GOT names--the two most obvious, in fact (though they're leads, aren't they?).  Harbour is good, but how come the boys, who make Stranger Things what it is, get nothing?  Patinkin is always great as Berenson--isn't it time he won an Emmy for the role? 

Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Alexis Bledel (“The Handmaid’s Tale”)
Millie Bobby Brown (“Stranger Things”)
Ann Dowd (“The Handmaid’s Tale”)
Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”)
Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”)
Thandie Newton (“Westworld”)
Yvonne Strahovski (“The Handmaid’s Tale”)
Lot of Handmaids here.  Too bad I don't get Hulu.  Millie Bobby Brown does a decent job, but while the show centers around her, does she give the most memorable performance in the series--how many times do we have to see her nose bleed?  (And I know she's a kid, but isn't she the lead?)  Good to see Lena Headey, even if her character has had better seasons--she still hasn't won an Emmy yet, and there won't be many more chances.  I would have liked to see Julia Garner from Ozark here.
 
Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Louie Anderson (“Baskets”)
Alec Baldwin (“Saturday Night Live”)
Tituss Burgess (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”)
Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”)

Tony Shalhoub (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”)
Kenan Thompson (“Saturday Night Live”)
Henry Winkler (“Barry”)

Good to see Winkler here--probably the most memorable performance in Barry (and he's never won an Emmy).  Thompson and (non-cast member) Baldwin from SNL--it's weird to see sketch performers against people playing regular roles in a series (though Baldwin only pays one role on the show these days).  The one I'd most like to see win is Brian Tyree Henry, who was even better in the second season of Atlanta than the first.  (And I'm sure some people are asking where's Lakeith Stanfield from the same show).  I guess John Goodman is a snub, though how much was Roseanne expecting?

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta”)
Alex Borstein (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”)
Aidy Bryant (“Saturday Night Live”)
Betty Gilpin (“GLOW”)
Leslie Jones (“Saturday Night Live”)
Kate McKinnon (“Saturday Night Live”)
Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”)
Megan Mullally (“Will & Grace”)

Three gals from SNL (including Jones, who's a presence, but has a history of screwing up her lines more than anyone).  Roseanne finally gets a nomination (though Metcalf has done better stuff, including her previous work on the show).  Will & Grace also gets some notice.  And, with the Brie Snub, it's good to see Gilpin from GLOW getting some notice--it was almost as much her season as Brie's (and her story was more consistent).  Though no Sarah Goldberg from Barry.  Not famous enough?  Some thought Jessica Walter would get a nomination for Arrested Development because Jeffrey Tambor shouted at her.
 
Guest Actor in a Drama Series
F. Murray Abraham (“Homeland”)
Cameron Britton (“Mindhunter”)
Matthew Goode (“The Crown”)
Ron Cephas Jones (“This Is Us”)
Gerald McRaney (“This Is Us”)
Jimmi Simpson (“Westworld”)
 
Guest Actress in a Drama Series
Viola Davis (“Scandal”)
Kelly Jenrette (The Handmaid’s Tale”)
Cherry Jones (“The Handmaid’s Tale”)
Diana Rigg (“Game of Thrones”)
Cicely Tyson (“How to Get Away With Murder”)
Samira Wiley (“The Handmaid’s Tale”)
 
Guest Actor in a Comedy Series
Sterling K. Brown (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”)
Bryan Cranston (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”)
Donald Glover (“Saturday Night Live”)
Bill Hader (“Saturday Night Live”)
Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”)
Katt Williams (“Atlanta”)
 
Guest Actress in a Comedy Series 
Tina Fey (“Saturday Night Live”)
Tiffany Haddish (“Saturday Night Live”)
Jane Lynch (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”)
Maya Rudolph (“The Good Place”)
Molly Shannon (“Will & Grace”)
Wanda Sykes (“Black-ish”)
 
Not going to comment on all the guest appearance nominees except to note it's a chance for names who have won awards elsewhere to pick up an easy Emmy.  Also, hey look, yet another nomination this year for Donald Glover, Bill Hader and Sterling K. Brown.
 
Reality Competition
“The Amazing Race”
“American Ninja Warrior”
“Project Runway”
“RuPaul’s Drag Race”
“Top Chef”
“The Voice”
 
My life is so much better since I stopped watching Reality Shows.
 
Variety Sketch Series
“Saturday Night Live” (NBC)
“Portlandia” (IFC)
“Drunk History” (Comedy Central)
“Tracey Ullman’s Show” (HBO)
“At Home with Amy Sedaris” (TruTV)
“I Love You, America” (Hulu)
 
SNL is more famous than the rest of these shows put together.
 
Variety Talk Series
“The Daily Show With Trevor Noah”
“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”
“Jimmy Kimmel Live”
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
“Late Late Show with James Corden
“Late Show with Stephen Colbert”
 
Notice anything about these six shows?  They're all anti-Trump-all-the-time. What a startling lack of diversity.  And there wasn't even room to include Late Night With Seth Meyers and (major snub) Real Time With Bill Maher.
 
Television Movie
Fahrenheit 451” (HBO)
“Flint” (Lifetime)
“Paterno” (HBO)
“The Tale” (HBO)
“Black Mirror: USS Callister” (Netflix)
 
An episode of Black Mirror is considered a TV movie. Probably makes it easier to get nominations, so they must be happy.  By the way, I liked "Callister" a lot, but my favorite of the season was probably "Metalhead"--it interests me that this episode seems to be rated the worst of the season by fans.
 
Structured Reality Program
“Antiques Roadshow” (PBS)
“Fixer Upper” (HGTV)
“Lip Sync Battle” (Paramount)
“Queer Eye” (Netflix)
“Shark Tank” (ABC)
“Who Do You Think You Are?” (TLC)
 
Unstructured Reality Program
“Born This Way” (A&E)
“Deadliest Catch” (Discovery)
“Intervention” (A&E)
“Naked and Afraid” (Discovery Channel)
“RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked” (VH1)
“United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell” (CNN)
 
There are so many reality shows out there they now have different categories for them.  But aren't those nominated for "Unstructured" kind of insulted?

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