Friday, August 31, 2018


As promised, here's my post on Neil Simon's last play. I wish it were most positive.

His last new production, Rose's Dilemma, was presented to the public in 2003.  It was done off-Broadway.  When new Neil Simon can't debut on Broadway, there's trouble.  Maybe that's why he gave it up.

I recently read the play and think Simon, one of the greatest comedy writers of our age, understood it was time to get out of the game. He'd written some weak plays, but Rose's Dilemma is the worst I'm aware of.  The characters are shallow and the gags hopeless.

In his early plays, such as Barefoot In The Park and The Odd Couple, the comedy seemed to flow so easily.  Sure, his characters would sometimes make wisecracks, but they were funny wisecracks.  He would go on to become more "serious" but in later work such as his Brighton Beach trilogy, the characters still made us laugh effortlessly.  But I don't think he wrote a fully realized play after Lost In Yonkers in 1991.

Rose's Dilemma (what an awful title--every play involves a lead character with a problem, and Rose's is pretty weak--it's more of a situation than a dilemma) is a four-character piece.  Rose is a playwright who hasn't had a hit in a while.  She had a lover, Walsh, a successful novelist who dropped dead of a heart attack.  (The characters seemed to be based vaguely on Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett.) She now sees him as a ghost.  Walsh--though he's just a figment of Rose's imagination--wants Rose to hire some unknown writer named Clancy to finish his last novel and make Rose a lot of money. (There's talk that Rose is in financial trouble, though there's little evidence of it, and no reason to believe it.)

Rose is attended to by Arlene, who's also a writer (everyone in this play is a writer) and turns out to be the daughter Rose abandoned.  I suppose in the hands of a talented playwright at the top of his game, something could be made of this.  Instead, all we get are a lot of lame wisecracks and a situation that's amazingly uninvolving.

The story behind the play is more fascinating.  Mary Tyler Moore was set to star, but Neil Simon sent her a nasty note demanding she learn her lines, and she walked.  Maybe she was looking for an excuse to exit. And maybe Simon felt nasty because he knew he was written out.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Pink And Gold

It's not just the data, it's how you interpret it.

I recently finished Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, where he claims life has improved tremendously in the past 200 years or so, and we can expect the trends to continue.  On my last trip to the library, I looked at Jonah Goldberg's new book, Suicide Of The West.  As you can tell from the title, he thinks things are on the verge of collapse.

But here's the funny part.  Both rely on pretty much the same data.  Pinker's book has pages and pages of charts showing the mind-boggling improvements since 1800.  And Goldberg says the same thing in his introduction, while including an appendix that reproduces much of the same data that Pinker offers. (The data have been out there for anyone to see for some time--both these books explain the data, they didn't create it.)

Pinker's argument is pretty simple.  Values supported by the Enlightenment, such as logic and science (as opposed to superstition and appeal to authority), helped draw us up out of the swamp.  Certain things work, like free markets and democracy and basic rights.  We have been following Enlightenment ideals and show no sign of stopping any time soon, so the most likely outcome is further improvement.

Goldberg claims that recent history is an outlier.  He refers to the rise in wealth and well-being in the past two centuries as the Miracle.  Democracy, human rights, capitalism and so on are not the norm for society, or human nature.  People were around for tens of thousands of years, living in squalor, and the only era where things really got better for just about everyone has been the past couple centuries.

So there's no reason why we might not return to the muck.  And Goldberg sees troubling trends, as modern politics turns its back on the classical liberalism that served us so well, and instead embraces "tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics."

So who's right?  I'd lean heavily toward Pinker.  Yes, there are storm clouds on the horizon, but there area always storm clouds on the horizon.  The rise in human fortune since 1800 has been spectacular, but not always steady--there have repeatedly been movements ready to drag us down if they get big enough, but they haven't been able to stop the overall progress of the past two hundred years.  In fact, even the people in the groups that seem to worry Goldberg still tend to accept the basic principles that have helped humanity progress. (And even among the worst of the worst, things have still generally been getting better over the decades.)

Sure, some movements seem to be leading toward authoritarianism, and know-nothingism, but really, they can't compare to the threats of fascism and communism not that long ago, to pick two obvious examples.  And the amount of people living in freedom and prosperity today are much greater than ever before--even if they backslide a bit they'd still be better off than the norm not too long ago.

It's not as if we haven't seen Goldberg's thesis before.  It's a perennial.  Books written ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago and so on say pretty much the same thing.  Apparently, the Western world and all it represents is always on the brink of annihilation.

I'm not saying we shouldn't worry about groups and ideas that move us in the wrong direction (even assuming we can assess them properly). But the need to claim the end is near requires a strained interpretation of the available data.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Whole Truth

I recently watched The Half-Naked Truth, a minor but enjoyable 1932 comedy from Gregory La Cava.  It stars Lee Tracy as a carnival barker trying to promote a hoochie dancer played by Lupe Velez.  His assistant is played by Eugene Pallette while Frank Morgan portrays a Broadway producer.

I watched it with the closed captioning on, and was almost as amused by the CC's attempts to reproduce the dialogue as the movie itself.  Either the typist wasn't aware of some of the slang of the time, or didn't get the jokes, because there were an awful lot of mistakes.

For instance, when the sheriff is about to shut down the carnival, Pallette rushes in saying "amscray," but the CC has it as "hamstring."  Later Tracy and Pallette talk in Pig Latin while the CC says "they speak in a foreign language." I guess it's a foreign language of sorts.  (Lupe Velez also speaks in another tongue which is referred to as a foreign language--couldn't they tell it was Spanish?)

Later, Tracy convinces others that Pallette is his Turkish assistant who happens to be a eunuch.  (Racy stuff in 1932).  Later, the maid jokes about this special kind of Turk, though the CC has her call him a "turkey." The maid later mentions her name is Ella Beebee, though for some reason the CC has it as "Albeibi"--so they add in the Turkish stuff when it shouldn't be there.

There are quite a few more mistakes.  Morgan refers to a fellow producer as a "sawed-off shrimp."  The typist must have never heard of this phrase, since it comes out as "sore old shrimp."  A reporter mentions Coney Island which somehow comes out as "Tony Island." Tracy refers to one of his clients as a protégé, which comes out "prodigy."  And he calls Pallette a "roustabout" which so confuses the CC typist that there isn't even a word--the sentence was left out.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Light Reading

I just read Steven Pinker's recent bestseller Enlightenment Now.  In it, he argues that the principles that came out of the Enlightenment--such as reason and science--have worked in the past and should continue to work in the future if we choose to use them.  As such, this is a continuation, or really an enlargement, of his previous book The Better Angels Of Our Nature, which deals with how violence has been declining for a long time.

In his latest, he looks at numerous trends in addition to violence.  By almost every standard that can be measured, people, worldwide, are considerably better off than they were two centuries ago.  He uses numerous graphs to show the trends and many pages to explain how and why it happened with Enlightenment values.  He also gives us good reason to believe the best bet is such trends will continue.

You would think his argument is unimpeachable, but, in fact, both the left and the right are very opposed to this view of progress.  Conservatives, almost by their very nature, claim the past was better, while progressives, as Pinker notes, hate progress (especially when it's achieved through democracy, free markets and science).

Overall, a fine book, laying out calmly--and voluminously--the basic liberal argument for progress (even if many who call themselves liberals today don't support it). There is a major weakness, however,  Though I'll discuss it at some length, it doesn't really take away from the overall excellence of the book.

The problem is when Pinker gets too much into contemporary politics, which one would think are not quite settled as to where they fit into the overall arc of history.  Pinker, though he often stands against the modern, liberal academic worldview, is nevertheless a modern, liberal academic and sees today's world through that lens.

For instance, he understands that socialism doesn't work, while free markets and private property do; that capitalism and technological advances created enormous wealth which societies could put to use to ameliorate various social problems--crime, health, etc.  But once Pinker is satisfied that a modern society offers a ground floor of capitalism, it would seem almost any amount of social spending will do, the more the better.  The higher the taxes, the more progressive the tax rates, the better Pinker likes it. One might think at a certain level, and in certain places, limiting taxes and pulling back on government programs could be helpful, but it's hard to conclude this from Pinker.  In other words, Pinker seems to have lost his historical perspective and gotten mired in modern politics.

For instance, does Obamacare improve health care in America?  There are arguments pro and con, but Pinker seems to assume the overall effect is positive.  Or what's the best way to deal with race--treat people differently based on the color of their skin, or treat everyone the same?  Once again, Pinker, like a modern liberal, seems to prefer to former, without spending any time proving that's the better path.

Or look at Brexit.  Pinker almost always has positive feelings about international agreements, but does that mean the EU has to be a good thing for all nations?  I have no idea what's best for the UK, or for Europe, but just because Brexit is a symbol of reactionary nationalism to Pinker, must it be a bad thing?  Isn't it at least possible a particular authority that sets regulations for Europe might not be the best arrangement, and a nation that wants to get out from under, for whatever reasons, is moving in a positive direction? (Pinker wants us to be responsive to new evidence--so let's have different experiments among countries to see what works better.)

The worst thing in Enlightenment Now is Pinker's treatment of Trump, who was elected while he was writing the book.  I understand Pinker's problem--these days, any academic who doesn't wholeheartedly condemn Trump is asking for trouble.  In fact, Pinker notes his friends would have liked him to end each chapter with "of course, all this progress could suddenly end due to Trump." So Pinker probably thinks he's letting Trump off easy.

However, instead of taking an historical perspective, which one would hope all his research would lead him to do, Pinker comes across as a crazed Trump hater.  Trump seems to represent an historical break for him, moving us in the wrong direction in almost every way.  His argument, then, is not that we should try to understand what Trump actually means.  Rather, it's don't worry--Trump might cause trouble, but it'll be temporary and minor, and besides, he's not that popular anyway.

Pinker is too busy throwing invective to attempt to fathom Trump. (As is often said about Trump critics, Pinker takes him literally but not seriously.) While it's true, no matter what he does, Trump (like most leaders) is probably a blip, it's hard to say what effect he'll have regarding Enlightenment values.

In fact, it's easy to argue that, when it comes to actual policies, Obama was far more radical than Trump is. (I'm talking about policies, not style.) And you could also say that George W. Bush was more radical, or Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would have been more radical.

It can be argued--with actual facts, not partisan rants-- that Obama (or the others mentioned above, or the Democratic party in general) is worse than Trump in a number of ways--health care, education, free speech, race relations, international relations, even climate change, free trade and how much he likes Putin.

In any case, at this point, these are judgment calls. No one can know yet, since not all the data are in, and we certainly don't have any historical perspective.  But that doesn't stop Pinker.  I don't expect, or even want, Pinker to say Trump is great, just to admit there are pro and con arguments, and no one can be sure how things will turn out.

Pinker spends a lot of pages in his book discussing various cognitive biases which color our thinking. Maybe he should have thought more about such factors and given his book one last rewrite.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Good Enough

The third season of The Good Place will debut in late September. In these dog days of August, I figured I'd re-watch the first season. It didn't take that long--all the episodes without commercials add up to about five hours.

I think I can safely say the show's premise is unique in TV history. It's about a woman, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who wakes up to find herself in "The Good Place." Turns out she died and is now in Heaven. It doesn't take her long to figure out she's there by mistake, since Michael (Ted Danson), who runs the place, believes she led a completely different life from her actual one.

I was intrigued to see how it would play the second time around.  If you're a fan of the show, you know there are big reveals along the way. There's no cheating, or not much, but the biggest reveal--which doesn't come until fairly late--colors everything before it.  It also takes away some of the fun, I think, since it makes some of the jokes go in a different direction.

Still, The Good Place holds up.  It just plays very differently when you know where they're going.  Sort of an odd experience.

Sunday, August 26, 2018


Believe it or not, today I was set to run a post (written a few weeks ago) about Rose's Dilemma, the last play Neil Simon presented on Broadway.  Then I heard Simon had died.  I'll put up the piece on the play later--though, alas, it's not positive.  (I'll have to rewrite it a bit, since I wonder in it how much longer will Simon be around.) Today, let's talk about his career.

If I had to answer who's the best comedy writer of the 20th century, I'd say Simon.  He was mainly a playwright--though he did write for TV, and wrote more films than most writers who only work in that field. Partly he was so prolific because he didn't do anything else.  He didn't act, he didn't produce, and didn't seem to like doing anything but sit in a room with a typewriter pounding out his latest.

Born in 1927 in New York, he was a shy kid, nicknamed Doc. He loved seeing comedy movies starring great clowns like Chaplin--he actually was asked to leave the cinema more than once for laughing too hard.  His childhood wasn't idyllic, however, with financial hardship and his parents clashing. He served in the military just as WWII was ending. All these things would serve as fodder for his writing.

He and his brasher brother, Danny, started writing comedy together, breaking into radio and TV.  Eventually, Neil wrote for Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers and others. He could have had a successful career in TV, making top money (and moving to California), but he wanted to be a Broadway playwright.  (This was back in the days when being a playwright was classy and being a TV writer wasn't.)

His first play, Come Blow Your Horn, took years, and countless drafts, to make it to Broadway.  Simon didn't know how to construct a play, and got a lot of advice on rewrites (the title of his first memoir--a delightful book), but for later plays would just come up with a premise and some characters and start writing to see what would happen.

Come Blow Your Horn, which opened in 1961, was a hit, running a year and a half. It actually was going to close soon after opening, but both Noel Coward and Groucho Marx were reported to say they liked it, and that was enough to turn things around.  People read newspaper columns in those days, and shows didn't have to sell out to be profitable.  The play itself demonstrates this new playwright has a lot of talent, but Simon is still learning. It wouldn't take long before he'd mastered the form, however.

Simon next wrote the book for the musical Little Me, which ran 257 performances..  It's a fine show, and Simon's work is hilarious, but he learned that a piece of theatre has to involve the audience or they'll feel cheated.

Next, Simon came up with his first blockbuster, and still a delight to this day, Barefoot In The Park.  It was the play where he first worked with director Mike Nichols (who was just starting out himself).  Nichols had a magic touch, and for the next decade he would direct Simon's biggest hits.

Barefoot shows a fully mature Simon, as far as getting laughs in concerned.  Okay, he's got an innocent bordering on naïve take on life in this comedy about two newlyweds (based on Simon and his first wife Joan), but he's also got a style of character-based comedy and clever lines with near-continuous laughter.  Just a few weeks ago I watched a 1981 HBO performance of the play and marveled at the writing.

Next came The Odd Couple, probably his greatest, and also the title he's best remembered for.  Allegedly based on his divorced brother then sharing a place with another man, it was Danny who was originally going to write it.  But Danny wasn't really a playwright, and eventually Neil took the idea and ran with it.  The play was hilarious but had serious act three problems (this is back in the day when Broadway plays had three acts) that were only fixed on the road.

I watched the famous Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon film version last week. (Simon wrote the play with Matthau in mind, and it turned him into a star when he did it on Broadway.)  Once again, I marveled at the writing, and decided to watch the Broadway version from several years back starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (who'd both starred in original Simon plays earlier).  If you're into 20th century comedy, the play is as quotable as Hamlet--page after page of classic jokes that flow naturally but you don't see coming.

Simon continued writing books for hit musicals--Sweet Charity, Promises Promises, They're Playing Our Song (which I saw on Broadway)--but he considered his plays the main thing, so we'll concentrate on them.

His first less-than-a-hit comedy was The Star-Spangled Girl, where he got a little out of his comfort zone, setting the play in San Francisco and featuring characters (only three in the play) discussing politics.  Still, the production ran half a year and is funnier than most plays.

He followed it with another blockbuster, Plaza Suite. It consists of three pieces (originally it was four, but one, a monologue, was cut and later turned into a movie script. The Out Of Towners), each set in a suite at the Plaza Hotel, each about a couple, each performed by the two leads, George C. Scott and Maureen Stapleton.  The first, while still a comedy, was Simon's most dramatic piece yet--he could have turned it into a full-length play, but decided one act was enough.  The second act is more conventional comedy, and the third act is farce.  A true night of entertainment, but the first act pointed in the direction Simon would be going.

The 60s rolled into the 70s, and New York (and the world) seemed a darker place.  And the hits he wrote around this time reflect his concerns--The Last Of The Red Hot Lover, about an average guy unhappy with his life who wants to cheat on his wife, The Prisoner Of Second Avenue, about a middle-aged New York couple who are cracking under the pressure of modern life, and The Sunshine Boys, about an old Vaudeville duo who still hate each other too much to revive the act.

I'm not saying Simon was turning into Eugene O'Neill, but he simply couldn't write anything as innocent as Barefoot In The Park any more.  And another thing happened that changed him--his wife Joan, whom he'd married in 1953, died in 1973.  He'd marry three other women, though it was never the same.

His next hit, produced in 1976, was California Suite, a follow-up to Plaza Suite--a series of playlets set in a hotel.  The new location also reflected that die hard New Yorker Neil Simon had moved out west.  (In the 90s he'd write London Suite, though he didn't move there.)

The hit after that  (I'm skipping over a few flops here and there, but Simon had more hits than misses--in fact, he had more hits than most playwrights have plays) was what some considered a breakthrough, Chapter Two.  The story of a writer coming to terms with his wife's death, it's based on Simon's own story.  From today's perspective, I don't think it's one of his best, but it shows the playwright grappling with tough material.

After two decades on top, Simon had a couple flops and some wondered if he wasn't written out.  But then he came back with some of his biggest hits in the 1980s Brighton Beach trilogy, three plays based on his early years--Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound.  They all feature Simon stand-in Eugene Jerome, growing up and getting the experience necessary to turn into a writer.  Each was made into a movie (the last a TV movie) and they're not bad, but they should still be seen as plays.

While these works are as funny as ever, Simon isn't turning his back on the ugliness of life. Even then, though, some claimed he prettified his life, and, after a farce called Rumors (a minor hit that some liked, but I think far from his best) he came out in 1991 with Lost In Yonkers. It's set in the same era as Brighton Beach, but, while still funny, is considerably more raw.  It was a hit that won Simon not just a Tony, but a Pulitzer.

While I wouldn't exactly call Simon written out at this point, he'd never again scale the same heights.  And never again have a major hit.  Shows like Jake's Women (which I saw in Los Angeles before it hit Broadway), Laughter On The 23rd Floor (about his days writing for Sid Caesar), Proposals and others just don't connect like his earlier work did.  Not that he had anything left to prove.

Recent Broadway revivals of his work haven't done well.  Perhaps it was the productions, perhaps it was the snooty New York attitude, but I don't think it's the plays.  They're still as funny as ever.

Simon stopped producing new plays about 15 years ago, and suffered from Alzheimer's.  He's gone now, but I believe his work will continue to delight audiences well into this century and beyond.

Saturday, August 25, 2018


Leonard Bernstein was born a century ago today.  He had a significant career as a conductor, but I think he may be remembered best for his show music.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Ha Ha

Today is National Tell An Old Joke Day.  Most jokes are old jokes, so that shouldn't be too hard.

Though telling jokes at all seems a weird thing to do in this post-modern age.  Let me get this straight--you're going to tell me a fake story with the purpose of eliciting a laugh?  Why would anyone want to do that?

But I like old jokes.  Some are so old, we just know the punch lines and have practically forgotten there was a time when they were new and no one knew what was coming.

For instance, someone had to come up with

"Who was the lady I saw you with last night?" "That was no lady, that was my wife."

Or how about

"I'd like to buy some talcum powder". "Walk this way." "If I could walk that way I wouldn't need the talcum powder."

Maybe the ultimate fount of old jokes is Henny Youngman. (Young man, old jokes.)  So here are some of my favorites.  (I'll try to pick ones that aren't considered sexist, though that removes a lot of the best material.)

The food on the plane was fit for a king--"here, King!"

A doctor held a stethoscope to a man's chest.  The man asks "Doc, how do I stand?" The doctor says "That's what puzzles me."

Getting on a plane I told them "Send one of my bags to New York, send one to Los Angeles and one to Miami."  They said "We can't do that!" I said "You did it last week!"

And let's end with one of the best joke men of the past fifty years, Rodney Dangerfield.

A girl phoned me and said  "Come on over.  There's nobody home."  I went over.  Nobody was home!

I told my doctor "Every morning when I get up I look in the mirror and feel like throwing up.  What's wrong with me?"  He said "I don't know, but your eyesight is perfect."

My wife has cut me down to once a month.  I'm lucky--I know two guys she cut off completely.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Going Out With A Bang

After I wrote a big post on it a few days ago, The Big Bang Theory is in the news: the upcoming 12th season will be its last. Probably a good idea. The show is a huge hit--one of the biggest sitcoms ever, and still the top show on CBS.  Arguably on TV.  But there's a feeling it's run its course. 

It's not entirely clear who decided to end the show--the cast, specific cast members (rumors are this was Jim Parsons' decision), or executive producer Chuck Lorre.  Almost certainly it's not CBS.  The show is expensive, but it's also a hit, and they'd like to see it continue.

Ratings-wise, though it's still a hit, the numbers have been dropping for several seasons in overall viewership (and even more in the 18-49 demo).  Bowing out at the end of this season allows them to go out on top, before it's clear the ship is taking on water.  And, of course, the main actors and producers involved have all become multimillionaires, so I assume they can afford to leave it all behind.

Anyway, no comedy can last so long and stay fresh.  In fact, most shows start repeating themselves within 100 or maybe 150 episodes.  Other long-running sitcoms such as The Simpsons and Modern Family (both of which I'd rank higher than TBBT) have also gotten a bit tired--wonder if this move will make them look in the mirror.

The Big Bang Theory stayed fresh by adding characters along the way (mostly women--a smart move as far as the ratings are concerned), but its essence--nerdy guys trying to get along in life--has gone about as far as it can go.

The show started with four, young single guys--and a young single gal who lived across the hall--doing the sort of things young, single people do, mixed with their nerdy interests.  But they've come a long way.  Three of the four are married, one with kids, so how much longer can they hang out as in their carefree early days?

Some might want to see further adventures of these married couples, but that sounds like a different show to me, and one far less interesting.  At present, poor Raj is the only one without even a girlfriend, though he's made great strides--at least he can talk to women now.  And I would guess his love life will be an important plot in season 12.

So we'll bid a fond farewell to the show.  And I assume the ratings will stay high, maybe get a boost, since the fans now know the end is near.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


Barbara Harris has died.  I was always a fan, though I haven't thought much about her in years--of course, she hasn't made a movie in years.

She first came to notice as a member of Second City in the early 60s--a sketch featuring her and Alan Arkin as an uptight woman and a beatnik was considered a classic. They took their show to Broadway where Harris was nominated for a Tony.

She would go on to star in two musicals on the Great White Way in the 1960s--On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Apple Tree (which was actually three musicals in one)--getting two more Tony nominations and winning one for the latter show.

In the first half of the 60s, she also did a fair amount of TV, appearing in shows such as Alfred Hitchcock PresentsNaked City and The Defenders.  Her first movie role was a memorable turn in A Thousand Clowns (1965).

She spent the 70s and much of the 80s making films, including Plaza Suite (1971), Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971--Oscar nomination), Nashville (1975), Family Plot (1976), Freaky Friday (1976), Movie Movie (1978), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988).  She worked less and less until she retired from acting, turning to teaching.

She never quite made the A-list, but I was always happy to see her.  And perhaps because she's not such a big name, her performances will be a happy surprise to millions in the future.

PS  Also, RIP to Craig Zadan, who died unexpectedly. A noted producer of Broadway, film and TV, I remember him best as the author of Sondheim & Company, the magnificent book Sondheim fans pored over during the years when little else was available.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Let's Begin

A bunch of Arclight Cinemas has sprung up in the L. A. area.  I'd say they're the best kept-up theatres around.  They cost extra, and you have to choose your seat when you buy a ticket (which apparently is considered something good, though I prefer to enter the house and decide at that point where to sit).

Before the movie starts, an usher will stand in front of the crowd and make an announcement--what movie we're about to see, where the emergency extras are, please turn off your cell phones, etc.

Lately, however, it seems some of these people think they're entertainers.  They add more and more material, and allegedly funny asides.  Here's something no one's ever said: "Gee, I wish this movie introduction were longer." I mean, in other cinemas the lights go down and the projector starts, no need for an intro.

So if anyone reading this is an usher for Arclight, or knows anyone who is, please spread the message.  Keep it short as possible.  Or even see if the chain can stop these lead-ins entirely.

Monday, August 20, 2018

That's Your Theory

There are a lot of takedowns on YouTube. It's a genre unto itself.  Someone takes the time to explain why some movie is no good, or some political stance is dangerous, or whatever.  Sometimes you buy it, sometimes you don't.

So it's rather silly for me to waste time beating up on a video about "What Went Wrong" with The Big Bang Theory.  Who cares what these people think? Sure, it's got over a million views, but it's not like it has any effect.  The show itself will start its 12th season in late September, so the public has already spoken.

But it's rare to see an argument so completely wrong-headed. And since comedy is something I care about (and think I know a little about), I thought I'd respond. I haven't bothered to embed the video, but if you like, click on the link to view it, though I wouldn't waste my time.

It's 12 minutes and 28 seconds, and features a sarcastic, obnoxious narrator (which is unnecessary, but common in many of these videos). It's taken as read the show is no good.  They believe the main problem relates to references.  Big Bang is a show with much of its comedy based on references to science or comics or whatever.  They give some examples of characters spouting something about physics, sci-fi movies, etc. The problem is the joke isn't in the reference, but simply about making a reference.

Their main example is Sheldon coming upon Penny, who has slipped in the bathtub.  He starts going on about the scientific reasons why she fell.  The video says Sheldon merely making a reference to the coefficient of friction is supposed to make us laugh (as the fools on the laughtrack obligingly do). As they put it: "The actual science isn't the joke, but the fact that they're talking about science is. Friction isn't funny--the reference to friction is funny." They give some other examples of characters tossing in scientific references and note you could slip in pseudo-scientific gibberish and it would play just as well.

To demonstrate how such a joke should be properly done, they offer up a freeze-frame from a Futurama episode where a cinema is called "Loew's [symbol for Aleph Null]-plex." In this case, the reference actually works as a joke itself.  As you may know, Aleph Null stands for an infinite set of numbers, thus "the joke is the impossibility of a movie theatre having infinite screens."

We are now three-and-a-half minutes into the video and I don't know if I can take much more. These people presume to lecture us about comedy, yet are clueless as to how jokes work (which is actually kind of funny).

In the Sheldon and Penny scene, we're not laughing at the reference.  The joke is Sheldon's inability to pick up on social cues.  Here's a half-naked woman lying in a tub who may be in pain.  He should be turning off the shower and helping her up, or at least sympathizing with her (and perhaps not staring at her), but instead he's such a nerd that he can only explain to her the physics of why this happened, and criticize her for not having a safety mat or adhesive stickers.

This, in fact, is the basic Big Bang Theory gag.  The show is about a bunch of people, mostly nerds--highly intelligent but socially awkward--trying to maneuver their way through life with big brains but limited social skills.  If you don't get this, you simply don't get the show.

Meanwhile, the video doesn't even get the Futurama gag.  It's not the greatest joke, but then, it's a background gag which you may or may not see (and may or may not get) so no big deal. But the joke is not about how it's impossible to have infinite theatres, it's about how ridiculously many theatres are in a cineplex, both today and taken into absurdity in the future.

The video next quotes philosopher Jean Baudrillard and his theory on the four levels of meaning, each succeeding level getting further from an object's actual value.  I don't think Baudrillard's questionable theorizing has anything to add to a discussion of comedy--even if you mistakenly think The Big Bang Theory is merely about laughing at references--so bringing him into the argument just wastes time.

The video goes on to note the show, with all the characters regularly dumping on each other, ends up being essentially a takedown of nerd culture. Then the video--rather late--has a history lesson about theorists of comedy, starting with Plato, followed by Hobbes and Descartes, who believed that comedy is a sign of superiority--we're looking down on others when we laugh at them. However, the video adds, The Big Bang Theory isn't Seinfeld--"these aren't horrible people deserving our scorn."

The superiority theory is just one theory of comedy.  You can't quote it and act as if you've explained what comedy is.  In fact, another well-known theory (from Bergson, I believe) is that humor comes from people acting mechanically--which is actually a decent explanation of the Sheldon gag mentioned above.

Yes, it's true, the characters on Big Bang do insult each other quite a bit--par for the course on sitcoms.  But they also care for each other, which is the main takeaway from most episodes--of most sitcoms, actually. And by the way, the characters on Seinfeld are also sympathetic (as are the characters in pretty much every sitcom I'm aware of).  We watch sitcoms to laugh at the foibles of the characters, but, by and large, we like the people on these shows, for all their faults. (Seinfeld's characters did get more heartless as the show went along--almost as if they were seeing how far they could take it.)

As for what makes up the humor in general on The Big Bang Theory, if all they did were reference jokes mixed with insults, we'd have gotten tired of the show years ago.  In fact, the show offers the whole panoply of sitcom-style gags--what counts is how well the characters are built, how intriguing the plots are, and how smartly the jokes are written and performed.

There are plenty of things to criticize about The Big Bang Theory.  You could say it's sappy.  You could say the characters are one-dimensional.  You could say, after you get past the superficial trappings of geekdom, the show is too conventional.  Even if you liked it originally (as I did), you could say the show's been on too long--when it started the characters and gags were fairly fresh, but they've been wringing out variations on the same quirks for so long there's not much new territory to explore.  (And Bernadette is now so nasty to Howard I wonder why they stay together.)

So there is a video worth making about why the show doesn't work any more.  Or even why it never worked.  But the last people who should be making that video are the people who made "What Went Wrong?"--in fact, since they seem completely oblivious to why something is funny, they shouldn't be discussing comedy at all.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Middle Ages Crisis

Matt Groening's latest is Disenchantment, his first new animated comedy since Futurama.  Ten episodes are now available on Netflix, though I've heard twenty have been ordered. I've only watched the pilot.

Disenchantment is set a long time ago in a fairy tale world (he did the future, so now it's time for the past).  Its main characters are a princess, an elf and a demon. Princess "Bean" Tiabeanie just wants to hae fun, and so isn't happy about her arranged marriage.  Elfo lives in elf world, but unlike everyone else, he just can't be jolly all the time, so he leaves to enter the human world.  Luci, a demon sent to Bean by two mysterious, evil characters, exists to bedevil the princess and turn her to the dark side.

In the pilot, Bean's father, Zog, is marrying her off to gain wealth and power through a political alliance.  Bean, who has a stepmother, Oona, who's half human, half reptile (or perhaps amphibian) longs for her dead mother, Dagmar.

Elfo enters during the wedding and in the commotion escapes with Bean.  Luci, already stuck to Bean, also comes along.  The three are chased by Prince Merkimer, her intended.  I assume the rest of the season will deal with their adventures.

The characters, as you might expect, look like Groening's characters in The Simpsons and Futurama.  That's how he draws.  The lead voices are supplied by Abbi Jacobson, Eric Andre and Nat Faxon.  Other voices are supplied by Groening regulars such as Tress MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarch (he must like surnames with two capitals) and Billy West.

I like Bean and Elfo.  They've both got good attitudes--she's feisty and he's hopeful.  I'm not thrilled with Luci.  He's just nasty and I don't see how he adds much to the show, though presumably his plot purposes will be revealed along the way.

The reviews have not been great. Maybe they're a little harsh. While there weren't any big laughs, I found the show entertaining, and will certainly check to see what's next. (The pilot ends with a cliffhanger--actually, it ends with the three jumping off a cliff.)

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Cole Stole?

I was watching Lady Of The Tropics (1939), starring Hedy Lamarr (the main reason I was watching), and early on there was a scene set in a nightclub.  The singer started a number with a lyric I thought very familiar. I didn't recognize the tune, but the words sure sounded like "Every time we say goodbye/ I die a little."  Wow.

I checked, and I was a bit off.  The song, according to the IMDb, is "Each Time You Say Goodbye (I Die A Little)."  It's by Phil Ohman and Foster Carling and sung by Gloria Franklin who was actually dubbed by Harriet Cruise.  Still...

The song "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," starting with the same words (except for "Each"), is a Cole Porter tune that's become part of the Great American Songbook.  It was introduced in a 1944 Billy Rose extravaganza known as Seven Lively Arts.  The show was not a hit, but the song has lived on.

Since it was first performed five years after Lady Of The Tropics, it makes you wonder if Cole Porter stole the words, even if he didn't think much of the tune.  Maybe it was just something he had in the back of his mind.  In any case, it's so close I have to believe it's more than a coincidence.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Fairy Tale

I recently watched The Good Fairy, a 1935 comedy directed by William Wyler and starring Margaret Sullavan. (They fought and fought and then, late in the shoot, eloped.)  I hadn't seen it in years, but it was as charming as I'd remembered.

This time around I noticed that the film, with a script by Preston Sturges (freely adapted from a Molnar play), foreshadows his work as a director.

There are minor instances.  For instance, Luis Alberni plays a comic Italian, as he would in another Sturges screenplay (Easy Living) and a Sturges-directed film (The Lady Eve).  And, early on, there's a specially created film within a film that the characters watch, as there is in Sullivan's Travels.

But there are themes and character quirks that Sturges would use again once he was in charge.

The male lead is a lawyer, played by Herbert Marshall.  He becomes successful through what is essentially a mistake, and it gives him confidence he never had before.  The same plot device would be employed with Dick Powell in Christmas In July.

More significant, Sullavan plays a lovely young woman (of course) and it turns out that every man who runs into her wants to do things for her. Sure enough, Sturges would take that concept and run with it in The Palm Beach Story, which is based on the idea that a beautiful woman doesn't need money, since others will take care of her.  Though, to be fair, in that film, Claudette Colbert is wise, whereas Sullavan is a naif.  But the concept is the same.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Queen Of Soul

I guess there's nothing to do but listen to some Aretha Franklin songs.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

How Will You Make It On Your Own?

I'm not a fan of sitcom reboots.  It's hard to recapture the magic of a show (if it was ever good in the first place).  But I'm not necessarily against spinoffs.  They usually don't work, but at least they're something new.  The main trouble is taking a supporting character and putting her at the center of the show.  Before she could be quirky, but to be the lead the producers often have to sand off the edges to have her play off everyone else.

Readers of this blog probably know I was a fan of The Middle, and my favorite character was Sue Heck, played by Eden Sher.  Now it looks like the character may get her own show.

Sue was the one optimistic member of the beaten-down Heck family.  Almost every obstacle she faced was met with giggly enthusiasm, and she was grateful for the smallest of rewards.  It could have been a tiresome one-note character, but Eden Sher brought her to life.

But can the whole show be about her?  Sue is now old enough to leave the nest and live on her own.  According to early reports, the new show will have her starting a career in Chicago.  I don't know.

Sue was so different from everyone else she stood out.  But will this play when she's trying to develop a career.  Won't she have to get a little more serious, or at least a little more realistic and grounded.

Then there's the question of the other characters.  First, of course, is the question of her boyfriend whom she was planning to marry.  Will he be around, or will he be 86ed for the show.

Regardless, she'll have to have some friends.  We've seen 20-somethings hanging out in the big city before--it's practically its own genre.  But will that mean Sue will lose her small-town charm?  And can her style work with cynical city dwellers?

Guess we'll see. For now, I'm glad Eden Sher is getting a chance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Wonderful Lee

It's lyricist Lee Adams' birthday.  Happy 94th.  His first work for Broadway was seen over 60 years ago.  He's by far best known for his collaboration with tunesmith Charles Strouse from 1960 to 1970.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Here's To You

It was Dustin Hoffman's birthday last week.  He's 81.  By chance, during that time I was reading Beverly Gray's Seduced By Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became The Touchstone Of A Generation.

Gray saw the film as a young woman and it resonated with her.  As it did with millions.  This small sex comedy that came out of nowhere was a huge hit--adjusted for inflation, its domestic gross was almost $800 million, placing it in the top 25 of all time. (And it's the only one in the top 50 that wasn't produced or distributed by a major studio.)

The book has three parts--how the film came about, the film itself, and the effect it produced.  The middle section, a full third of the book, is a mistake.  It's a lengthy summary of the plot.  Sure, it has musings from Gray, and backstage information, but we already know the story and don't need to hear it again at this length.  It feels like padding.  But the rest of the book is fascinating.

The film has become a classic.  Anne Bancroft, who died in 2005, played a lot of memorable roles, and was somewhat miffed that this was what people always brought up. (She was nominated for five Oscars, winning for The Miracle Worker.) Mike Nichols, who died in 2014, had a lengthy, diverse career, but never really topped it. Even Dustin Hoffman, who went on to be a major star and appear in at least a handful of classics has never done better work (though he may disagree).

How did all this happen?  Well, it began with Charles Webb's novel in the early 60s.  It didn't get much attention, but was optioned by wannabe producer Lawrence Turman.  He got top-flight Broadway director Mike Nichols interested.  Both of them saw something in the central character of Benjamin Braddock--the uncertainty at the beginning of adulthood, the wish to break away from what's expected without knowing how to do it.

The top studios all turned it down--they were still making Doris Day comedies and this was a film about a young man who sleeps with a friend of his parents.  Turman finally got independent producer Joseph E. Levine to put up some money.  Levine often distributed schlock like Hercules movies, but had also been associated with classy foreign films and was happy enough to be involved in a cultural event (which he thought could make a profit--little did he know).

The casting for the lead was difficult. No one seemed right.  Dustin Hoffman, then an unknown in movies, though he had a reputation as a stage actor, was called in.  But Hoffman himself thought he was wrong for the part, which, based on the novel, seemed to call for a tall, tanned, athletic WASPy type.  But Nichols (and Turman and screenwriter Buck Henry) saw themselves in Braddock--an outsider who didn't fit in, not a confident winner who beds women.  Indeed, Hoffman's success changed what a leading man could look like.

The film also reflected a new openness in Hollywood.  Benjamin has an affair with Mrs. Robinson, but then falls in love with her daughter, Elaine.  There's a complication rarely seen in classic Hollywood films.

The Graduate became a blockbuster, but received, then and now, plenty of criticism.  At the time there were traditional types who saw it as immoral, and not just the affair--don't forget Benjamin steals Elaine away only after she's taken her wedding vows.

But more criticism came from those who didn't think the film radical enough.  It was shot in 1967, during the Summer of Love, and came out in December.  So where's Vietnam?  Where are the riots, and the protests?  Benjamin seems to live in his own world, without any reference to what's going on around him.

This was a conscious choice. Buck Henry even had a mention of Vietnam in one draft of his script, but it was cut.  Though the film is set in 1967, it's based on a book set a few years earlier, and made by guys who faced Benjamin's situation ten years earlier than that.

Making it more specifically political would have weakened, perhaps ruined the film.  Ben is troubled, but it's never entirely clear what his problem is.  He comes back from college a star and has the world at his feet, seemingly.  So what's troubling him?  If the answer is too specific, then the film became less universal and potentially too polemical.

Nevertheless, The Graduate came out at the right time.  A young man who doesn't know what to do could have worked any time, but somehow it hit the zeitgeist in the last 60s, when the Generation Gap had opened up as never before.  Kids were questioning the goals of their parents and rejecting their materialism (somewhat).

Of courses, the film was a hit because it's hilarious, and features two great performances by Hoffman and Bancroft (some of the others are good, though the rest of the characters are ciphers or caricatures).  And the ending is exhilarating--though the final shot, featuring the new couple at the back of a bus facing an uncertain future adds a note of uncertainty and is justly famous.

Another criticism is Benjamin is a spoiled brat who offers nothing--Mrs. Robinson, whose life has not turned out as she wished, is the sympathetic and wronged character, but the film treats her as the villain.  Well, she is the villain as far as she tries to prevent the lovers from getting together, but there is a reading where she's the tragic hero. It's just that the film is told from Benjamin's point of view.  And Dustin Hoffman is delightful and sympathetic in a part that could have fallen flat, so we root for him.

Some also criticize the movie's structure.  The affair with Mrs. Robinson is well-observed, but suddenly, and with little reason, Ben falls in love with Elaine.  Why?  Because she's young and her mom isn't?  Some felt the film sold itself out with a rushed Boys Meet/Loses/Gets Girl at the end.  It's true the movie doesn't have as much time to deal with that relationship, but Hoffman and Katharine Ross are appealing enough to put it over.

My problem with the film, and it's minor, is Nichols is too much into cinematographic tricks that draw attention to the director.  I don't think those have aged well.  And he also has one too many montages set to Simon and Garfunkel in the second half of the film.

But up against such wonderful comedy and the stirring ending, who cares?

Sunday, August 12, 2018


Today is National Middle Child Day.  And as a middle child, I have to say, about time.

The oldest child gets a lot of solo attention.  The youngest child gets special treatment as the baby of the family.  It's the middle child who's so easy to forget.

There is a thing called Middle Child Syndrome for the kid who doesn't have a clear place in the family.  I wouldn't make too much of it, but at least we should have a day a year for people to make sure they're not treating the middle child as an also-ran.

So to all you Jan and Peter Bradys out there, all you Mallory Keatons, all you Darlene Conners, all you Lisa Simpsons, all you Malcolms, all you Michael Bluths, all you Alex Dunphys, all you Sue Hecks, today is your day.  Enjoy it while you can.  Tomorrow it's back to normal.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Bart Blunder

Peter Bart has worked in or written about show biz for decades, but the stuff he does for Deadline Hollywood makes you think he's lost it. For instance, in a recent piece about Robert Redford's retirement we get this on Redford's early film career:

But the young actor was both determined and ambitious [after the failure of The Chase (1966)].  Having never done comedy, he nonetheless fought for a role in Barefoot in the Park (1967)...

How's that?  Never done comedy?  What about his first major film, Situation Hopeless...But Not Serious (1965)?  Bart couldn't be bothered to look that up?

Worse, of course, is that even before then, Redford was noted for his talent in light comedy.  In particular, he starred in a Broadway smash hit...what was that title again...oh yes, Barefoot In The Park.

In fact, I've heard (though don't know if I believe) that after a few flops Redford had given up on Hollywood, even on acting, and was travelling around the world when he was offered the role in Barefoot.  He didn't even want to do it, since he didn't like to repeat himself, so had to be convinced.

To his credit, Bart did spell the title correctly and get the year right.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Kate's Fate

Kate McKinnon has been the biggest star on SNL for the last several years.  In addition to her classic Hillary Clinton, she's developed a number of well-known characters, and her appearance in any sketch creates an expectation we'll see something special

Like many SNL figures, she's trying to develop a film career.  So far, it's not going great.  She's had small parts in films that didn't get a lot of notice, such as Masterminds and Office Christmas Party.  She's had more significant roles in other films that disappointed, such as Ghostbusters and Rough Night.  And her latest, The Spy Who Dumped Me, where she co-stars with Mila Kunis, has not been well-received.

People in Hollywood think she's funny--she's been nominated for five straight Emmys, winning two so far.  They want to cast her, but sooner or later she'll have to star in a hit or the offers will dry up.

The question becomes is it bad luck, is she bad at picking roles, or are her talents better suited to TV than movies?  It's hard to say.  I think she's quite funny, but filmmakers haven't figured out how to use her.

It's also hard to get a read on her--not that that should matter.  She reminds me a bit of Phil Hartman, who never took off in the movies--she's a chameleon but in interviews doesn't come across as comfortable just being herself.

Thursday, August 09, 2018


The Oscars are changing their rules. Responding to plummeting ratings, they plan to keep the show down to three hours, partly by handing out the less exciting awards during commercial breaks.  I think this is unfair--the people who ihe "minor" awards are never heard from again.  This is their one chance to shine, don't take it away from them.

Instead, I would suggest instead of separate performance of the nominees for Best Song, all of them should be sung in a medley that takes less than two minutes. (And perhaps that should be done during commercials.)

But the biggest change they're making is to create a new category, Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film.  This is presumably so that blockbusters, often left out of the non-technical categories, can win a big award.

How you feel about this depends on how you see the mission of the Academy.  If you see the Oscars as essentially a TV show, why not?  But if you see them as an annual award for artistic quality, then this is stupid.

Sure, people want to see the films they watched win awards.  (Though it is funny that some feel the Academy is too highbrow, when they're about as middlebrow as you can get.)  Some years ago the Academy allowed more films to be nominated for Best Picture, and added a separate animation category.

But this is a bridge too far.  The awards are for quality, take it or leave it.  We don't need a separate category for superhero films.  We didn't used to have this split.  It's true to first Oscar ceremony gave an award for Outstanding Picture and Unique And Artistic Picture, but they were working out the bugs and that was gone by next year.

Over the early years of the Oscars, what was considered the Best Picture was often the same as the high-grossing picture.  Then, a few decades ago, it's hard to say when, there came a separation between what was considered quality films and blockbuster films.  If that's the way it is, so be it.  There are plenty of people's award. The Oscars can be one night of the year where grosses don't matter.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018


The fourth season of Better Call Saul premiered on Monday. Good to have it back. But I still have problems with the show.

First, much of its popularity comes from the reflected glory of Breaking Bad.  This is, in essence, a prequel.  We get to see how Saul Goodman came to be, as well as the earlier days of Mike Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring.  If we didn't know Breaking Bad, would we care?

I mean we're in the fourth season and the lead character is still called Jimmy McGill.  The show is called Better Call Saul, which means nothing except in reference to the character we know from Breaking Bad.

Season four begins with a lengthy flash-forward to the world of Saul Goodman hiding as a Cinnabon manager named Gene in Omaha.  We see how he has to worry about being discovered.  I wouldn't have minded a show that gave us the adventures of Saul Goodman who went into hiding at the end of Breaking Bad, but these little glimpses (preciously done in black and white) aren't worth much.  And, as I've noted before, I never understood while Saul had to go underground to begin with--his clients were involved with crime, but couldn't he claim he was just their lawyer (and destroy any evidence that could incriminate him)?

Next we get back to the main story, set in the past.  It's a time of transitions.  Jimmy learns what we saw at the end of season three--his brother Chuck died in a fire.  Jimmy is surprisingly callous about the whole thing when he discovers he helped drive his brother over the edge, but I agree with him.  Good riddance.  The Jimmy-Chuck relationship has been central to the show, and has been the worst thing about it.  All that tiresome stuff where Chuck deals with his affliction alone drove me batty.

Truth is, I never needed to see why Jimmy became Saul. Would have been fine with me if the series started with Saul.  Instead, we got endless scenes where Chuck and Jimmy fight each other, giving us a rather pointless and unnecessary explanation of Saul's origin.  We haven't had a more useless older brother Chuck since Happy Days.

Next we get to Mike's story.  He's finally leaving his job at the toll booth and working full-time security for Madrigal.  Mike's story is a lot more fun--we didn't need to spend a lot of time seeing him get to be who he is, we just get to enjoy him being the cool character we already love.

We also get a bit more on Gus Fring.  Gus is always great to see, and already close to the Gus we came to know on Breaking Bad.  We understand that Gus, Mike and Jimmy's lives will be destroyed when they come into contact with Walter White, but we can at least have some fun before it happens.

This also means, of course, we know they won't die in this show. (Well, I guess Saul can die in the future, but the show is essentially set in the past.)  Which, admittedly, makes the secondary characters, such as Kim and Nacho, potentially on the chopping block, which gives the show a little edge.

Reading what I just wrote, I see I've mostly complained.  But as I said up top, it's good to have the show back.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The DT's

Donald Trump doesn't act like any other U.S. President.  Sure, there were some notable for fighting against any perceived insult--Harry Truman comes to mind--but not anyone who was punching back every day.  On the other hand, are we surprised?  We knew what we were getting.  And I don't just mean based on his campaign.  He's been a public figure for decades, and this has been his public face.

Which is why I was sort of amused to have his technique confirmed when reading a selection from Julia Phillips' You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again excerpted in Christopher Silvester's collection of writing about Hollywood. It's in a nasty profile of producer David Geffen.  He and Phillips were discussing who should direct Interview With A Vampire:

[Just who does Geffen think he is?]  Then I answer myself: He is David Geffen, a powerful force in Hollywood January 1989, the Donald Trump of Show Business.  Jesus, these guys are taking the fun out of everything.  I noticed the week before [...] that Donald Trump had written a letter of protest to People magazine because the week before they had, in an article about Merv Griffin, said that Trump has been bested by Griffin in the Resorts International deal.  Jesus, was Donald so insecure as to personally write a letter about that shit?  Aren't you supposed to be above that sort of thing if you're Donald Trump?

Phillips, who produced The Sting, Taxi Driver and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, died in 2002, so she didn't live long enough to learn definitively that Donald Trump is not above that sort of thing.

By the way, I remember reading about the Resorts International deal, which was big business news back then. I have no idea who was bested, though I do seem to recall Griffin did not do well financially in Atlantic City.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Does This Make Sense?

The Sixth Sense came out 19 (!) years ago this day.  It was the kind of surprise blockbuster that makes the movie racket an exciting and confusing business.  I'm not going to bother with a spoiler alert here, since everyone knows the film's secret and if they don't, I think we've passed the statute of limitations.

I saw it when it came out and haven't felt the need to watch it since.  Many watched it a second time to see how M. Night Shyamalan cheats in scene after scene by having Bruce Willis in the action without actually interacting with anyone other than Haley Joel Osment.  I've never watched it all the way through a second time partly because I came in the first time already knowing the secret--no one told me, exactly, but one friend had guessed the surprise ending and pretty early on I could tell he was right.

Here's the problem I have with the plot.  Willis is child psychologist Malcolm Crowe and Osment is Cole Sear, a child who sees dead people.  The psychologist has Cole work through his problem by listening to what the dead people want and helping them with unfinished business, rather than fearing them and fighting against them.

This is horrible advice. If Cole imagined he saw dead people, perhaps performing tasks for them would be a way of working out his psychological problems and making them go away.  But he sees honest-to-goodness ghosts (like Malcolm himself) and does them actual favors.  Which means it will never end.  Dead people will hear about this little kid who can help them, and he'll be inundated with requests for the rest of his life.  The kid is doomed.  Thanks, Malcolm.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Killing Time

I don't pay too much attention to what Pope Francis (or any Pope) says.  After all, his job is to lead the Catholic Church, and as such has no moral authority over me.

But he's got a lot of attention lately for proclaiming the death penalty unacceptable, with the Catholic Catechism being changed accordingly.  Once again, not my business--though I'm no fan of the death penalty so if others want to stop using it that's fine with me.

Though I have to wonder how the Pope's fellow Catholics feel about this.  It's my understanding the Catholic Church has for centuries found the death penalty to be acceptable under certain circumstances.  Was this attitude treated as provisional, or an eternal truth?

I would guess some Catholics--including some fairly high up in the hierarchy--must feel the Pope is not on firm doctrinal grounds.  So what should they do?  Put up with it?  Quit the Church?  Or just wait out this Pope and pick a better once next time?

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Food, Glorious Food

A bunch of holidays today:

It's National Mustard Day.

It's Mead Day.

It's National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.

It's National White Wine Day.

It's National Jamaican Patty Day.

So your menu is all set.  You can make that work, can't you?

Friday, August 03, 2018

Who Cares?

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, was a huge hit last year.  With a cast that includes Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan, it was the biggest domestic grosser any of them had appeared in (including the Fast And The Furious and Guardians Of The Galaxy films).  In fact, the film was such a crowd-pleaser that though it finished second in grosses its first week (behind The Last Jedi), it was #1 for five of the next six weeks.

The film doesn't need a sequel, but it's getting one, of course.  Is that a good idea?  We'll see. But I admit I'd thought a Jumanji reboot in the first place was a bad idea.

I was a big fan of the original Jumanji in 1995 (based on a book, though it essentially created its own plot since the book was pretty basic).  I thought the central concept really worked.  There are a bunch of players in a game--both kids and adults (who started playing when they were kids)--who have to finish to return to normal life.  Whereas in most films the leads try to avoid danger, in Jumanji, the characters understood that every time they rolled the dice some unknown danger would come to them, but they had no choice.  Plus the plot took unexpected turns and had true heart.

I didn't see the point, creatively speaking, of doing it again when they'd done it right the first time.  And when I saw the trailer, I was even less impressed.  In this reboot, the kids would be sucked into a videogame.  That seemed to be missing the magic of the first, not to mention it felt like we'd seen this plot before.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the movie.  And re-watching it recently on cable, I can see why it works.  Mind you, I have a friend, a screenwriter, who thought it was by the numbers.  Perhaps it does telegraph the plot somewhat, but the characters make it work anyway.

Action films don't work because of stunts and effects.  Those things help, but they're never enough by themselves.  If they were, then DC films would be as good as Marvel films.

It's about characters, and how the plot relates to them.  To care about a fight, you've got to care about the fighters.  And Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle solved the problem in a fun way.  It's pitched toward teenagers, but can be appreciated by anyone who was a teenager.

The first act introduces four kids, each a high school stereotype.  There's Spencer, the nerd, Fridge, the jock, Bethany, the hot girl and Martha, the shy girl.  Then they unwittingly take on their avatars in the Jumanji game and get to see how the other half lives.

Thus, Spencer becomes a muscular hero (Johnson), Fridge a half-pint (Hart), Bethany a portly, middle-aged man (Black) and Martha a babe who knows how to fight (Karen Gillan).  This leads to some decent comedy, as we get Hart complaining, Johnson gulping at his derring-do, Gillan being awkward and Black who can't even.

But it also gives resonance to the characters--they're going through a journey that changes them.  And it's why, after the climax, when they win the game, there's a lengthy denouement not featuring the stars, but bringing back the actors who play the teens.  Because we've come to know who they are, and we want to see how things are resolved when they get back to real life.

And I think that's why the film did so well week after week. It wasn't just a thrilling adventure film.  It made the audience laugh and ultimately care.

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