Thursday, February 28, 2019

Doctor, Doctor

Congratulations are in order to Grey's Anatomy, which has just surpassed ER as the longest-running prime time medical drama in TV history.

It debuted in the 2004-2005 season--the season that changed everything.  Perennial last-place network ABC catapulted to #1 thanks to new hits Grey's Anatomy, Lost and Desperate Housewives.  Those last two got more attention back then, but are long gone.  Meanwhile, GA manages to discover new diseases and trickier relationships each week.

But while longevity is nothing to sneeze at, it's not really the same towering hit that ER was. (I have no dog in this fight, by the way--I've never seen a complete hour of either show).  In this fractured age of TV viewing, it's doubtful anything could be.  ER was probably the last of the wide-audience hits.

Let's go to the numbers.  Grey's Anatomy was a top ten hit in its first four seasons, and since then has settled into the top 20 or 30--though its demos in the 18-49 age group have been higher, never falling below #13.  Its average audience peaked in its second season at 19.44 million viewers.  Its average audience in its last full season was below 11 million.

Not bad, but not ER numbers. In that show's first five seasons, it rated #1 or #2, and never dropped out of the top ten till its 11th season.  Its average audience peaked in its 3rd season at 30.79 million viewers.  While GA never reached 20 million average viewers, ER never dipped below 20 million until its 9th season. (That 9th season averaged 19.99 million--still higher than any GA season).  ER started seeing serious erosion in its 11th season, but even in its 15th and final year, it still averaged 10.3 million viewers.

So while Grey's Anatomy is something special, I wouldn't call it as special as ER.

PS.  Congratulation to Brooklyn Nine-Nine which was just picked up by NBC for a seventh season.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Lived Long And Prospered

Leonard Nimoy died four years ago today.  Doesn't seem like four years.

He had a long and varied career, but is known mostly for playing Mr. Spock in Star Trek.  I think that's fitting.  He took a supporting role--in a show that could easily have been forgotten--and created an indelible character.  How many actors, in TV or elsewhere, have done that?






Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Molly's Folly or The Bloom Room

A bit over ten years ago, Texas Hold 'Em was all the rage.  I went to a regular Wednesday tournament.  The buy-in was $40, and you could re-buy as many times as you wanted for the first hour.  By the end of the night, first place could be worth about $600, second-place $300 and third-place $100.

There were stories about higher stakes games in town, though none of us had any idea how to get in (even if we could have afforded it).  Several years later there was some sort of bankruptcy investigation where the biggest Los Angeles game and many of its players were uncovered in the press as the government tried to claw back the money.  It turned out a young woman ran the game, and her name, oddly enough, was Molly Bloom.

She got into further trouble related to New York gambling activities and in the middle of that wrote a book about her life, Molly's Game.  It was published in 2014 and made into a movie by Aaron Sorkin, starring Jessica Chastain, in 2017.  I saw the movie when it came out, and have now read the book. (The movie follows the basic story, and brings us up to date on events that happened after publication, but there's quite a bit more about how she ran the game in the book).

Bloom starts with a two-page prologue where she notifies us the FBI will eventually come knocking, but otherwise the tale is told chronologically.  She was raised in Colorado, where Molly and her two brothers, pushed by their father, were overachievers.  She never felt she was as accomplished as her siblings, though, and after considering law school, instead left for Los Angeles to find her fortune.

She slept on a friend's couch and took the first job she could find, working as a waitress in Beverly Hills.  The guy who ran the restaurant was in business with two trust-fund babies and took Molly on as an assistant for their many dealings. The group took over ownership of the infamous Viper Room on the Sunset Strip and he decided to start a high-stakes poker game there, which Molly would run.

She had no experience at it--didn't even know poker--but was a fast learner.  With her boss's connections, it soon became the hot game in town, featuring big Hollywood names--most notably Tobey Maguire, who took poker quite seriously--as well as rich businessmen and others, but no professional players.

There was a $10,000 buy-in, and everyone begged to get in.  Molly was not paid for her services, but received tips, which added up to more money than she'd ever seen.  She and her boss had a falling out and Molly, showing her competitive spirit, managed to wrest the game away from him.  She moved it out of the dank Viper Room basement and into fancy hotel suites.  She made sure her guests had all the amenities.  Good food and drink, not to mention beautiful young women to serve them.  She also upped the buy-in to $50,000.

She didn't seem to be breaking the law.  The game had no rake--the house taking a percentage of the pot--which would have made it illegal.  Bloom was essentially an event planner who got huge tips.  She checked with her lawyer, who said a line so great that Aaron Sorkin put it in his film: "Don't break the law when you're breaking the law." In other words, what she was doing was a legal gray area, so don't do something at the game that's clearly illegal, such as bring in prostitutes or cocaine.

She did such a good job at maintaining the game--recruiting new players, figuring out the right mix at the table, making the playing as enjoyable as possible, collecting from the losers and paying off the winners--that she was netting more money than ever.  She never gives a direct number, but it would seem to be five figures a week.  And then the game was taken away from her (according to the book) through the machinations of Tobey Maguire.  Maguire and Bloom had clashed over various issues and perhaps he was punishing her.

So Bloom moved to New York and started an even richer game. After all, New York is the financial center of the world--movie stars live in Los Angeles, but the people who sign their checks live in New York.  Using her skill set, it wasn't long before she was hosting games with a $250,000 buy-in and making even more money. Further, she was running more than one game, though this meant she was working with other people and had less control.  This also meant some games had a rake, which made them illegal--this is what the FBI arrested her for, though she had believed it was at worst a state law misdemeanor. (It's not entirely clear why Bloom allowed the rake.  Was it loss of control? Was it the need to have more money on hand since she had to pay off players and it wasn't always easy to collect from the losers?  Was it that she now had a drug habit and was making bad decisions?)

But even before the arrest, she sometimes wondered (she claims) if she wasn't losing too much in other ways.  She was in her early thirties, and already her youthful earnestness and dreams seemed to have been left behind.  It certainly cost her in the love department.  She had some serious relationships, but the world of poker would always end up getting in the way.

Anyway, the roof eventually caved in.  Some mob guys wanted to partner with her and she refused.  They broke into her apartment, stole her money, beat her up, threatened her life and warned her that she better cooperate. (Soon after, there was a mass arrest of organized crime figures, so that problem actually went away on its own.) Then there were the legal troubles noted above.  First the problem from the L.A. game, then the arrest of Bloom along with many of her New York players (who were apparently committing serious crimes outside the game).  Bloom did not cooperate with the authorities, protecting the secrecy of her clients (the book mixes real names with invented ones).  She ultimately decided to plead out on a lesser charge for no jail time.  I get this from the internet, since the book actually ends before she's sentenced--I guess the publisher figured better strike while the iron is hot. (The movie says she could have made a lot more for the book if she was willing to name all the names, and shovel more dirt.)

Bloom resurfaced a bit when the movie came out, but I'm not sure what she's doing now. I believe she lives in Los Angeles.  If I could get her contact information, maybe we could start having those Wednesday tournaments again.

Monday, February 25, 2019

After Oscars

Guess I might as well write about last night's Oscars.

The overall show wasn't too inspiring, but having no host turned out to be not so bad.  At least it seemed to make the show go faster, and that's always a good thing. (The show still ran well over three hours.  Time to get rid of those songs.)

Anyway, Hollywood decided to share the wealth--of the eight films nominated for Best Picture, every single one won at least one Oscar.  (That's bad writing--I used the same sound three times in five words.)

I was pleasantly surprised that my two favorite films in the Best Picture category--Roma and Green Book--each won three prestigious awards.  Roma won for direction, cinematography (both for Alfonso Cuaron, who had quite a night--he won two Oscars for Gravity as well, by the way) and foreign language film.

Even bigger, the Academy ignored the silly controversies surrounding Green Book and gave it Oscars for supporting actor, original screenplay and best film.  I thought Richard E. Grant should win for supporting actor, but Mahershala Ali (who's won this award before) did a good job--even though he really was a co-lead with Viggo Mortensen. And Peter Farrelly, not even nominated for best director, still managed to win two Oscars for the film.

I wonder if winning the foreign language film award prevented Roma from winning the best picture Oscar--after all, how many awards does it need?  I also wonder how Peter Farrelly's brother Bobby feels?  They make a bunch of fine comedies together, and the first time his brother works alone he wins all these awards.

Black Panther also won three awards--all below the line.  But the biggest winner, by raw numbers, was Bohemian Rhapsody, which won four Oscars.  It won two for sound--maybe because the voters figured rock music is made up of sound so why not?  It also won for editing, which is weird because the editing seemed pretty poor.  Rami Malek won for best actor.  He did a good job, so it's hard to complain, though I wonder how many voters thought he did his own singing.

Both Malek and Olivia Colman, who won best actress for The Favourite, are better known for TV work.  Are they now movie stars?  Colman was a surprise winner, while her two co-stars, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, were competing against each other for best supporting actress and I assume split the vote, since Regina King won.  But it's okay, since both Stone and Weisz already have Oscars.

The biggest losers of the night were Amy Adams and Glenn Close.  Many thought Adams would win best supporting actress, and Close was considered a near-lock for best actress.  Between them, they have 13 acting nominations, and not a single win.

A lot of political speeches--it's now expected--and they were as tiresome (and occasionally incoherent) as usual.  Why does Hollywood figure because they're giving each other awards for artistry that they've suddenly become political experts?

Anyway, a bunch of people have bragging rights for the next year.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Big Night

Tonight is night Hollywood waits for all year 'round: the Oscars.  The following are the nominees in the big categories with my picks and predictions.  A lot of difficult calls.  PS  Now that the show is over, I will put a + by the winner.

Best Picture:
“Black Panther”
“BlacKkKlansman”
“Bohemian Rhapsody”
“The Favourite”
“Green Book” +
“Roma”
“A Star Is Born”
“Vice”

It's rare a foreign language film is nominated, much less wins this Oscar, but I think this is the year for Roma (partly due to weak competition).  I'd vote for Roma, though I wouldn't mind seeing Green Book take it.  The tricky thing about this category is, with eight nominees, it's hard to figure how the vote will split.
 
Lead Actor:
Christian Bale, “Vice”
Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”
Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody” +
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”

I guess I'd choose Viggo Mortensen.  Christian Bale did a great impression, but was it much more than that?  The same goes for Malek, though he was memorable enough that he just might take it.
 
Lead Actress:
Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”
Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite” +
Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

It appears to be Glenn Close's turn to win.  Too bad, since I think she's done better.  I guess I'd vote for Aparicio, though Colman was pretty good.
 
Supporting Actor:
Mahershala Ali, “Green Book” +
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”
Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born”
Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Sam Rockwell, “Vice”

The biggest thing preventing Ali from being a mortal lock is he won this award two years ago, but the Academy is not that sentimental, so I think he'll win again. If I were voting, it'd be an easy win for Grant. (Many categories have people who shouldn't be there, but Elliott and Rockwell are being nominated for characters that stood out for being especially pointless.)
 
Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams, “Vice”
Marina de Tavira, “Roma”
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk” +
Emma Stone, “The Favourite”
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”

Amy Adams, who's been nominated without winning almost as many times as Glenn Close, may have a chance for that reason.  Either Stone or Weisz might have won if the other hadn't been nominated.  It's hard to judge Tavira, acting in a different language.  I'd say King is the slight favorite.  I'd probably go for Stone.
 
Director:
Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite”
Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma” +
Adam McKay, “Vice”

Three foreign directors.  Unusual.  If Roma is the best picture, I'd expect Cuaron to be the best director.  He won a few years ago for Gravity, but this film is quite different.  I'd vote for him.
 
Animated Feature:
“Incredibles 2,” Brad Bird
“Isle of Dogs,” Wes Anderson
“Mirai,” Mamoru Hosoda
“Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman +

Hard to pick a winner.  None of these choices really stand out.  Isle Of Dogs is the most different.  I think Spider-man has a slight edge.  I guess I'd vote for Isle Of Dogs, shrugging my shoulders.
 
Adapted Screenplay:
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Joel Coen , Ethan Coen
“BlacKkKlansman,” Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee +
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins
“A Star Is Born,” Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

I'm not sure if any of these should have been nominated.  I might vote for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which was hit and miss, but had some of the most lively dialogue of the year.  Could You Ever Forgive Me? wasn't bad, and I wouldn't mind if it won.  The others shouldn't win, but it's hard to discount BlacKkKlansman.
 
Original Screenplay:
“The Favourite,” Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
“First Reformed,” Paul Schrader
“Green Book,” Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly +
“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
“Vice,” Adam McKay

Once again, I guess Roma will take it.  And probably should, though perhaps Green Book could sneak in, since it's in English so the voters could understand the dialogue.
 
Best Documentary Feature:
“Free Solo,” Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi +
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” RaMell Ross
“Minding the Gap,” Bing Liu
“Of Fathers and Sons,” Talal Derki
“RBG,” Betsy West, Julie Cohen

Hard to judge this category, since I've only seen two of them (and other docs that were big hits didn't get nominated).  I'd choose Free Solo, but if the Academy is feeling political, perhaps they'll go for RBG.
 
Best Foreign Language Film:
“Capernaum” (Lebanon)
“Cold War” (Poland)
“Never Look Away” (Germany)
“Roma” (Mexico) +
“Shoplifters” (Japan)

If Roma is the only one here worthy of being nominated for Best Picture, how could it not win in this category?  I should add the quality in this category is higher than the Best Picture nominees.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

SD

Let's say goodbye to Stanely Donen--one of the last connections to the great movie musicals of the past. (I've written about Donen before, though not at length.)

He was a Broadway chorus dancer as a teen in the 1940s when he got to know star Gene Kelly, and worked as his assistant choreographer.  Kelly went to Hollywood and Donen followed.  There he worked on hit musicals such as Anchors Aweigh.  Donen and Kelly co-directed some of the most significant movie musicals ever, such as On The Town and Singin' In The Rain.  It's hard to know who did what, but someone had to make sure it looked good while Kelly was busy acting on screen.

Donen also went out on his own and directed films such as Royal Wedding, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Funny Face (two of which starred Fred Astaire, the dancer who inspired him when he was a kid).  But he went beyond musicals--a good thing, too, as the grand MGM musical was going out of fashion.  In fact, arguably the last in this tradition was Donen and Kelly's It's Always Fair Weather.

He would go on to work with Cary Grant--the Fred Astaire of non-dancers--in films such as Indiscreet (with Ingrid Bergman) and Charade (with Audrey Hepburn).  The latter, a mystery set in Paris, turned out to be one of the most influential films of the 1960s.  A whole bunch of movies followed with one-word titles set in foreign locales that mixed comedy, mystery and romance--including Donen's Arabesque, starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren.

But Donen kept changing, making the sophisticated romance Two For The Road with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, and the small, irreverent comedy Bedazzled with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

He kept working in the 70s and 80s, though his films didn't have quite the same impact (though I'm a fan of the generally forgotten 1978 film Movie Movie).  He also made a bit of a splash doing a highly publicized musical number in an episode of TV's Moonlighting.  And he directed the Lionel Richie video "Dancing On The Ceiling," which repeated (poorly) the trick camerawork that had Fred Astaire dancing upside-down way back in Donen's first solo musical job, Royal Wedding.

He moved on from musicals, but they're what he'll be remembered for.  There were a lot of major directors working at MGM in the 40s and 50s on musicals--Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli, George Sidney, Charles Walters--and Donen is as important as any of them.

Go With The Flow

Today is the birthday of George Frederick Handel (that's the English spelling--the German spelling is a bit different).

I suppose his most famous composition is the Messiah, but I've always been a Water Music man.


Friday, February 22, 2019

Interested Persons

I haven't written about the Jussie Smollett case because I don't think I have too much to add to what's already out there.  I recall when I first heard his story a few weeks ago, it sounded implausible.  Actually, it was worse, since there were several parts which, taken individually, were implausible, so the story was more like implausibility built upon implausibility.

But there wasn't much point in saying anything.  Might as well let the investigation go on.  Either the story would unravel, or the case simply wouldn't be solved. (I guess there was a chance it would turn out to be true, and the perpetrators would be caught, but that seemed unlikely enough to ignore).

Of course, quite a few weren't willing to sit back and let the police do their work.  There were numerous condemnations of this alleged hate crime, most notably from politicians, celebrities and not a few media sources.  In general, they saw it as a chance to attack Donald Trump and the atmosphere they believed he was creating.

We're all aware of confirmation bias.  When we hear something that fits our worldview, we're quick to accept it, and when something goes against our beliefs, we tend to be skeptical.  But doesn't this go a bit beyond that?  It's one thing to believe there are a lot of hate crimes out there.  It's another to believe such hateful things about Trump supporters that you're willing to buy almost any story about them, no matter how ugly or bizarre.  The people who heard this story and didn't question it had, in effect, taken leave of their senses.

It would be good if people could learn a lesson from this story.  But it seems unlikely.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

PT

Peter Tork has died.  The Monkees were originally meant to be a TV show but turned into a pretty good band.  Who would have guessed their music would hold up so well?

It was after Beatlemania and the success of A Hard Day's Night that The Monkees became possible.  There was never meant to be a one-to-one correspondence between the bands.  However, I think Davy was their Paul McCartney.  The rest are trickier.  Mike, both a leader and a quiet guitarist was a mix of John and George.  Mike, both a comic drummer and sort of a raucous leader was a mix of Ringo and John.  And Peter, both the quiet guy and the silly guy was a mix of George and Ringo.


JH

Happy birthday to Jerry Harrison, who turns 70 today!  He was the last member to join Talking Heads (of the original four), brought in to fill out the sound.  Before then he'd been in The Modern Lovers.  Not a bad resume.








Wednesday, February 20, 2019

They Need To Go Back

Wasting my time on YouTube, I came across this video on the "Top 10 Most Insane Lost Moments."  Not sure why I watched it, since, as much as I loved Lost, I haven't spent that much time looking back. Now that I've seen the video, I must say, that's 14 minutes I'll never get back.

This is the obligatory sentence where I warn you there will be spoilers ahead.  Though really, if you haven't watched Lost yet, I doubt you ever will.

The list is almost worthless.  Sure, there are plenty of good moments--how could there not be? But those missing include the beginning of season two where we discover we're in the hatch (and a similar shock opening to season three), the wild visit to Jacob's cabin, Linus shooting Locke, Linus strangling Locke, first meeting Jacob and the Man In Black, discovering the young Ben Linus, Locke making a surprise reappearance, Ben killing Jacob and quite a few others.

But I could forgive all that if they hadn't kept off the list the most mind-blowing moment in the show--perhaps in the history of television.  I'm referring, of course, to the scene at the end of season three when Kate gets out of her car and walks over to Jack.  It was then we understood everything we thought we knew was wrong.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Possibilities

I was watching a trailer for an old movie where someone quoted the famous Sherlock Holmes line: "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

It's from The Sign Of The Four, if you're wondering, and is probably Conan Doyle's most quoted line. (He never wrote "Elementary, my dear Watson.")

I have to admit it's logically sound, but in practice unworkable. Eliminating all possibilities in the real world is quite a task. Even eliminating the likely explanations is beyond most people.

So deduce away, Sherlock, but it's better to figure out what happened through positive proof than a lack thereof. It's too easy to fool ourselves into believing we've eliminated all other possibilities. (Imagine watching a magic show and, when you can't figure out how the trick is done, concluding it must be magic.)

Monday, February 18, 2019

Jerry's Two Worlds

There are almost 40 books in the Yale University Press series of Jewish Lives.  They're short books--if you want in-depth biographies of Ben-Gurion, Disraeli, Einstein, Kafka, Groucho Marx or Barbra Streisand, look elsewhere.

I've only read two of them.  Not too long ago I read Molly Haskell's take on Steven Spielberg.  She was a bizarre choice to write about him, since as a film critic she's never been sympathetic to Spielberg.  In fact, I'd go so far to say the book was a mistake.

Now I've read Wendy Lesser's Jerome Robbins: A Life In Dance, and it also seems an odd fit.  Lesser certainly appreciates Robbins, but she seems to be writing the book to raise up his work in ballet, even if it comes at the expense of his work on Broadway. Much of the short book is taken up with lengthy descriptions of his ballets, such as Fancy Free, The Cage, Afternoon Of A Faun, Dances At A Gathering and The Goldberg Variations.  Meanwhile, a number of major Broadway shows, such as Gypsy, are dispensed with in a few sentences.  In general, his ballets are treated as purer, truer art, while his Broadway career is thought to be more coarse and corny.

Not being a big fan of ballet, I admit I'm more intrigued by Robbins' work on Broadway.  But Lesser is almost slighting of his tremendous success on the Great White Way.  Occasionally she'll praise some particular dance, but the only show she truly seems to appreciate (aside from some loving glances at Peter Pan) is West Side Story--that being the Robbins' show mostly held aloft by dance and music.

Robbin's first show, On The Town, is treated as a vulgarization of his earlier ballet Fancy Free, even though the two are very different things.  His biggest Broadway hit, Fiddler On The Roof, while praised for some of the dances, is criticized for its schematic plotting, its one-dimensional characters and its schmaltz.

I believe Lesser is giving her honest opinion, but I wonder if she isn't overcompensating.  Robbins, as she knows, is already one of the most respected director-choreographers ever on Broadway--he needs no help there.  Stephen Sondheim called him the only genius he'd ever worked with--an awful man, but so talented he'd be happy to collaborate with him again.  Gifted set designer Boris Aronson also had his differences with Robbins, but after seeing the famous "Bottle Dance" in Fiddler, said "Any man who can do that, I forgive everything."

On the other hand, the critical line on his ballet work, which Lesser hopes to change, is that he's a second-rater--a Broadway hoofer trying to rise above his station.  Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but Robbins did live his creative life in the shadow of mentor/master George Balanchine, to whom he was always being unfavorable compared.

Robbins died 20 years ago, and since then there have been at least two major biographies--Amanda Valli's Somewhere: The Life Of Jerome Robbins and Deborah Jowitt's Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theatre.  Both are far more comprehensive.  In fact, Lesser got much of her information from these books.

So is this new book justified?  Well, it's nice to get a new take on Robbins, even if I don't entirely agree.  Still, it wouldn't be the first book I recommend if you want to learn about the man.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

BG

Bruno Ganz has died.  He wasn't that well known to American audiences since most of his appearance were in German-language films.  Still, to a lot of film fans, he was one of the most fascinating actors of his day.

Oddly, he achieved a certain type of mortality for playing Adolf Hitler in Der Untergang, or Downfall (2004).  Not that so many people saw this film about Hitler's final days in the bunker--though they should, it's a fine movie. Instead, the scene where he rants to his top command has been used in hundreds of parodies, where the subtitles are changed so that Hitler is complaining about all sorts of modern phenomena.

But while Hitler was one of his best roles, Ganz did so much more.  For instance, there's Wim Wenders' cult classic The American Friend (1977), where he plays a picture framer who believes he's dying and gets involved in murder.  He's put up to it by Tom Ripley (Patricia Highsmith's character, better known for The Talented Mr. Ripley), played by Dennis Hopper.  It's a stylish modern noir, though kind of grim, and Ganz is at the top of his game.

Perhaps Ganz' best-known role, if you don't include YouTube, is in Wenders' Wings Of Desire (1987). (I prefer the German title Der Himmel uber Berlin.) Ganz plays Damiel, an angel who wanders around Berlin, secretly observing and sometimes comforting its people.  It's not enough for him, so he becomes a person to feel what it's like to be human.  It's a very touching film about love and life. Ganz reprised the role in Faraway, So Close! (1983) but the magic isn't quite there.

Ganz also appeared in English-language films, such as Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth (2007) and Stephen Daldry's The Reader (2008).  The most recent performance I saw of his was as the spiritual Gottfried in Sally Potter's The Party (2017), though the always busy Ganz made a handful of films after that.

In fact, he appeared in over 100 films, so though he's gone, there's still plenty to discover.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Stewum

Turner Classic Movies recently showed a documentary entitled James Stewart, Robert Mitchum: The Two Faces Of America.  I'm not sure why.

The idea behind the doc is a stretch.  These two simply don't go together.  They arose in different eras (pre and post WWII) and, while they had different screen types, and appeared in different sorts of movies, weren't representative of the two sides of America (whatever that means).

So we end up with two malnourished biographies of Stewart and Mitchum, padded with a lot of shallow analysis about how their films represented something about the United States.

Stewart and Mitchum knew each other, but it's not like they were lifelong buddies, as were Stewart and Henry Fonda (who deserve to have their story told side by side).  The documentary tries to make something out of how they died one day apart, but that's grasping at straws.

Late in their careers, Mitchum and Stewart appeared together in a version of The Big Sleep.  It's an undistinguished movie, but I'd rather watch that.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Oops, They Did It Again

I saw a poster for The Hustle, a movie starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, coming out in a few months.  It's a female remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

I understand why studios do remakes and sequels.  They're in business to make money, after all, and the audience likes things with a certain familiarity.  But is this the best we can do?  We've recently had female reboots and sequels of Ghostbusters and Ocean's Eleven, for instance.  Whether or not you liked these films (and I sort of liked Ocean's Eight--especially Anne Hathaway) I find the trend kind of tiresome.  I'd rather see these women in something original.

For instance, I very much enjoyed last year's witty crime drama A Little Favor, starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively (directed by Paul Feig, who also did the updated Ghostbusters).

For that matter, do we need any remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?  It's no classic.  And it already was a remake of the even worse film Bedtime Story.  Hmm--does this mean they'll keep improving?  All I can say is The Hustle needs to be better than Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to justify itself.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Reality Fiction or Whose Sharona?

Doug Fieger died, too young, on February 14, 2010.  He was the leader of the Knack, writing or co-writing just about all their songs, including their biggest hit "My Sharona."

I was just thinking about it, since that song was almost in Pulp Fiction.  It would have accompanied the notorious scene in the backroom of the pawn shop.  But what happened (according to one story I read) is those who owned the rights decided it should be in the movie Reality Bites instead.

I can understand the decision.  Reality Bites was more mainstream, and probably seemed the more likely hit in 1994.  Still, they chose poorly.

Tarantino later said it was just as well, since "My Sharona" would have come across as too jokey for his scene.  I disagree.  It would have been a classic moment.  Though it also would have meant from that point on, whenever people heard the song, they would be thinking of a certain sexual act.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Like A Rock

Rock Hudson was perhaps the last major star to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system.  And Mark Griffin's biography, All That Heaven Allows, tells his story well--both the public and private side of the man.

Born in 1925, Hudson had a troubled childhood.  But, when he came to Hollywood in the late 1940s, Roy Fitzgerald, as he was known then, had one thing going for him--he was devastatingly handsome.  He hoped to parlay that into stardom, and that's just what happened.

Before too long, he hooked up with powerful (and predatory) agent Henry Willson, and did what he was told.  This led to small roles, then bigger roles, then leading roles.  By the time he appeared in his breakthrough film, Magnificent Obsession (1954), he'd been in around 25 pictures.

That film, followed by All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Giant (1956), put him at the top. And then in 1959 he had a huge hit in Pillow Talk, which opened up a new avenue for him--comedy.

By the mid to late 60s, his stardom started to wane--you can't stay a beefcake forever, on top of which his acting style was also looking old-fashioned.  But Hudson managed the transition from movie star to TV star, and his police show, McMillan & Wife, ran 6 years on NBC in the 70s.

He continued to work in various film and TV projects, and also proved fairly successful doing theatre--though hardly a song-and-dance man, his tour with Carol Burnett in the two-person musical I Do! I Do! sold out.

He was no longer a major star in the 1980s, but a big enough name to be in demand for TV projects and smaller movies.  However, he was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1985, aged 59.

That's the basic outline.  The book has much about his closeted life as a gay man.  In the 50s, though he had many homosexual relationships, he worked hard to hide his sexual orientation, being photographed with starlets and even taking part in what was apparently a sham marriage.

Though his homosexuality was a poorly-kept secret in Tinsel Town, Hudson understood if he wanted to keep making movies, the public needed to believe he was a he-man. He never officially came out, though, in his final years, AIDS outed him whether he liked it or not.

But I didn't read the book to find out about his private life. I'm more interested in his film career.  I wouldn't call Hudson a great actor--he's rather stiff and his range is limited--but he did have a certain charm, and there's no denying he looked great.

Many critics have reevaluated a number of his films. Above all, there are the Douglas Sirk melodramas, such as Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows and Written On The Wind (1956).  They were big hits, but not taken that seriously at the time, while today some consider them screen classics.  I find the stories so overheated that it's hard to take them seriously, but they do have rapturous design and color, and clearly Sirk, handed these absurd plots, is trying to do something interesting with them.  In Hudson he found the perfect star, and Sirk used his leading man's personal conflicts to intensify his characters' internal problems.

Then there's Giant, a huge George Stevens production. Some consider it a classic, but I see it as a bloated epic.  It spends almost three and a half hours accomplishing very little, though it looks nice.  There are three leads here, and I think Hudson is out-acted by his partner (and good friend in real life) Elizabeth Taylor, while James Dean's acting style is simply from another universe. (Dean and Hudson did not get along, though Hudson felt bad about that hatred when Dean died late in the production.)

Next come his comedies, especially the triptych with Doris Day (and the wonderful Tony Randall), Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964).  These films practically defined romantic comedy in the early 60s.  They're certainly enjoyable, but simply don't compare to the screwball comedy of a generation earlier, and Hudson and Day are no Powell and Loy.  One thing that makes them fascinating today is that the plots often have Hudson playing a virile man who pretends to be gay to attract Day.

Then there are some one-offs that still hold a certain interest.  For instance, Man's Favorite Sport? (1964).  Far from a classic, it's director Howard Hawks trying to recapture the mood of the far better comedies he made with Cary Grant (after Grant himself turned down this film).  Hawks even has Hudson do some of the same gags, but they don't work as well the second time around.

Much weirder is Seconds (1966).  It's probably the oddest film Hudson ever made--this squarest of mainstream stars wanted to stretch when he made a sci-fi thriller about a tired, middle-aged man who leaves his old life and has a procedure that gives him a new life and identity.  Shot by John Frankenheimer like an art film (in black and white, by the way), it's not entirely successful, but has achieved cult status.

Or what about Ice Station Zebra (1968)?  Hudson wasn't the star he'd been, and hoped this big adventure film would put him back on top.  It didn't do that, but became a favorite of Howard Hughes, who, in his final years, living as a recluse on the top floor of a Vegas hotel--that he owned--and would call up a local TV station--that he also owned--and demand they show it over and over.

So if you're interested in the man's life, or his work, this is the book.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A Dog's Life

On a recent flight I noticed the person sitting next to me had a dog.  And the dog was wearing a vest that said "support animal."

I'm sure it's very nice to have your dog with you on a flight. I'm sure it's nice for the dog as well.  But is this a real thing, or just an excuse?  Would this person have been a wreck without his dog by his side?  Certainly people managed to fly for years without their pets.

In fact, I bet people need to smoke on planes more than they need a pet with them, but that's been banned with no looking back. (I know, the smoke bothers other passengers.  But some people are allergic to dogs and cats.)

I can't blame pet owners for taking advantage of this emotional support rule, but it still seems to be something close to a swindle.

Monday, February 11, 2019

GG

Gerry Goffin died five years ago--otherwise, he'd be celebrating his 80th birthday today.  He was married to Carole King for most of the 60s, but more important, he wrote a bunch of great songs with her.  When Lennon and McCartney were starting out, they would look at the names on their records and one day hoped to be as good as the team of Goffin and King.

Most of his Goffin's hits were with King, but he also wrote lyrics with Barry Mann, Jack Keller and a number of others.  In picking a few selection, I hardly know where to start.









Sunday, February 10, 2019

Stained or The Japes Of Roth

I was recently reading Philip Roth's The Human Stain.  It's the story of a professor at a liberal arts college who uses the word "spooks" in a classroom and ends up out of a job.  The book, set in 1998, was published in 2000, and was turned into a poor film starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in 2003.

Bill Clinton's impeachment serves as a backdrop to the novel, and it allows Roth to express his fury at how the president was treated.  He was incensed at the way Clinton was publicly humiliated for having a little fun, and by page 2 he (through his alter ego, narrator Nathan Zuckerman) is attacking all the bluenoses, especially on the right, for their pietism.

"[It was] the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge [...] and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony[....]

"I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE."

Of course, Roth's work is filled with men's insatiable sexual urges, so his take isn't that surprising (though I'd be more impressed if he defended a Republican accused).  Further, his sentiments were widespread among Democrats back then.

Roth died last year, but lived long enough to see the rise of the #MeToo movement.  He had stopped writing by then, but would occasionally make his thoughts known on present-day events.  In fact, last year he was interviewed by The New York Times and though the article claims he discusses #MeToo, he actually sidesteps the issue when questioned directly.

He did take the time, needless to say, to claim Trump is the greatest disaster yet to befall America, as he's said for every Republican president since Eisenhower.

I only wish he were still alive so he could be confronted directly.  Ever since Hillary lost, more and more Democrats have come around to the point of view Roth attacks with such ferocity, claiming President Clinton, in fact, should have been impeached--and not for perjury or obstruction of justice, which were the Republican charges, but for acting like a teenage kid in a parking lot.

I think Roth is one of America's greatest writers.  If only he had lived a few more years, perhaps he would have 1) won the Nobel Prize and 2) seen his books removed from college curricula.

Saturday, February 09, 2019

AF

Albert Finney has died.  He was one of top names of his generation of British leading men (and what a generations--Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Peter O'Toole, Sean Connery, etc.).

He started, like everyone did in those days, in the theatre.  It was clear he had the talent and looks to be in movies, and before too long had made his mark.  And it's his early work that I remember him best for.  In fact,  just last week I was re-watching some of the British "Angry Young Men" films, and the essential title is Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960), where Finney is a rough and cynical factory worker.  It may be his best performance, and his most iconic.

He soon proved he could do more than play a working class stiff.  In fact, the period comedy Tom Jones (1963), while overpraised (it won the Best Picture Oscar), showed that Finney had a wide range.  It got him his first of five Oscar nominations.

Another major film was Two For The Road (1967), which had him playing a modern, sophisticated man in a complicated relationship with Audrey Hepburn. (Two points about the film.  First, it was interesting to see Audrey starring with a younger man when so much of her career had her romancing men a generation older.  Second, I think this film, like Tom Jones, is overrated.  I admire Finney, but often more than the films he was in.)

In 1970, he starred in Scrooge, a musicalization of A Christmas Carol.  It's not that well remembered, but when I saw it as a kid, it really scared me.  One of his more delightful performances was as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Murder On The Orient Express (1974), for which he got his second Oscar nomination.

He started the 80s with a bunch of very different roles in films that were not hits: Wolfen (1981), a (pretty bad) horror movie; Looker (1981), a sci-fi thriller (which I would guess seems pretty ridiculous today--of course, it was ridiculous then); Shoot The Moon (1982), an overlooked drama; and Annie (1982), the misbegotten adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster.

Then, in 1983, came the small gem The Dresser, based on Ronald Harwood's play about a great British actor, known only as "Sir," and his faithful dresser.  Finney was Sir and Tom Courtenay (the other great "Angry Young Man" from The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner) was the dresser.  They were both nominated for Oscars.

Finney got his fourth Oscar nomination the next year for Under The Volcano.  In 1990, he was in Miller's Crossing--a film I've never really warmed to, though it's inexplicably the favorite of many Coen Brothers fans.

He was still a leading man in the 1990s, but not generally appearing in big budget productions.  He was also acting in more TV projects.  Then in 2000 he got his last Oscar nomination for a supporting role in Steve Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich (2000), which I would guess introduced him to a new generation of filmgoers.  The film was a major hit, as was the Oscar-winning Traffic, director Soderbergh's other film that year, in which Finney had a small role.

Finney appeared in a number of films over the next decade or so, such as Big Fish (2003), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007), before retiring from the screen.  He never did win an Academy Award, but all that shows is how arbitrary the Oscars are.

Friday, February 08, 2019

Zeit In The Geist

I just watched the fourth and final season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, its style is in many ways a continuation of their previous success, 30 Rock.

To try to stay up-to-date, the final season dealt with the #MeToo movement, but there was one moment in the finale that hit present-day events so on the nose that it's hard to believe it was written months ago.

It's a scene between regular Jane Krakowski as Jacqueline White, who's become a talent agent, and recurring guest star Zachary Quinto as Eli Rubin, a much more established agent.  Bragging to her about his experience, he says:

I've been in this business since Billy Crystal was doing blackface at the Oscars--almost five and a half years...

It was just a gag when they wrote it--or, as is the house style, a gag within a gag.  They couldn't have possible known how current it would sound. (Actually, it's been out there a couple weeks, and it only got current a week ago.)

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Not A Second Time

I was recently at a film showing introduced by a guy who demanded we applaud the director.  (To be clear, the director wasn't there--in fact, he was dead.)  Not satisfied by our response, he demanded we do it again, but this time show we meant it.

This is a common thing--a speaker tries to get an audience up by telling them their first reaction wasn't sufficient. And I can't say how much I hate it.

I heard him the first time.  I didn't even want to be bothered by this guy to begin with. I appreciated the director, but didn't feel I have to stamp and whistle to show it.  So if I'm asked to react yet again, I remain silent, annoyed the speaker is holding us hostage.

So let me start a new movement.  If anyone pulls this stunt at a showing or a concert or really anywhere, make sure you sit silent.  Whatever reaction you had at first was correct--no need to waste our time to please someone who hardly even deserves our attention.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Lost Again

In an age of TV reboots and revivals, I guess it was bound to happen.  ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke has suggested the network might give Lost another shot: "That is a reboot I would be interested in seeing."

Readers of this blog may be aware that I was a big fan of the show, and was also very disappointed with the finale.  But while I wish they could have done their last season differently, a reboot sounds like a bad idea.

Lost, which (believe it or not) debuted almost 15 years ago, was a case of everything coming together at the right time and the right place.  In fact, it was a gigantic show done as a rush job--it's amazing it was ready in time, much less turned out to be as good as it was.  Trying to recapture that magic seems pointless.  If they use to same characters and the same setting, I doubt they would improve it.  And if it's new characters, perhaps even a new island, it might as well be a new show.

Carlton Cuse, one of the two producers who ran the show, says he's not interested in revisiting Lost.  He explains he and fellow producer Damon Lindelof told the story they wanted to tell.  He goes on to note "I would be fine if ABC hired somebody who had a good idea involving other character that go to the island at some other point in time."

He'd be fine, but it's doubtful such a show could be much more than second-hand.  The original series was the main story.  Nibbling around at the edges doesn't interest me.  I feel the same way, incidentally, about new shows being planned set in the world of Game Of Thrones--we've already had the main course, and I'm too full for seconds.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Strange

When I was a teen I read sci-fi and little else.  I don't read it much any more, but it sure meant a lot to me back then.  So when I saw Jo Walton's An Informal History Of The Hugos in my library I decided to check it out. Turns out Walton and friends had been discussing the Hugos year by year on the internet and now she's turned it into a book.

A bit of explanation, just in case: The Hugos are prestigious sf awards voted on by fans and handed out every year.  The book only covers the beginning in 1953 up to 2000--that was the year Walton had her first novel published, so she figured she'd stop.  Apparently Walton has won her own Hugo, though I haven't read any of her fiction.

Anyway, while it's fun going over a lot of old titles I read so many years ago, and quite a few more I didn't, I want to concentrate on the winning novel for 1962, Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.  It's one of the best known and best selling sf novels of all.  And Walton doesn't like it.

Heinlein is my favorite writer of science fiction.  I'm hardly alone.  I would guess he'd win in a poll.  I've read Stranger, of course--in fact, I've read it more than once.  On the other hand, I don't think I've read it in 20 years, so it's interesting to hear what Walton has to say, and what memories it brings back.

Heinlein's novel is about the only survivor of an expedition to Mars--he was raised almost from birth by Martians, who are far more advanced than humans, and 25 years later he's been sent home.  He's confined in a hospital and a nurse helps him break out.  He has plenty of adventures after that which make up most of the book.

Walton is a big fan of Heinlein, but Stranger, which was a departure for him, doesn't do it for her.  She likes the story up till the man from Mars breaks out, and then thinks it turns into a bunch of lectures from smug people with very little happening until an ending that comes out of nowhere.

She also doesn't like the attitudes in the book.  For instance, there's a problem with how the females are portrayed.  The man from Mars founds a religion and has a lot of sex with willing, beautiful young women; they're willing in two ways--with the power he teaches them, they can will themselves to be young and beautiful, which they do, even though the older men in the book don't feel the need to.  There's also the suggestion homosexuals have got something wrong with them.  The book in general preaches do your own thing, but this cult practices cannibalism, which is a bridge too far for Walton.

I have to admit I don't remember much more than a vague outline of the story.  In one sense, I agree with Walton.  Heinlein was a master of plotting--he was a master in general--but this book is a bit more discursive than most (a flaw that would grow in his later work).  I remember thinking the first half, filled with intrigue, was the best part, and at a certain point it lost its urgency.  Also quite entertaining is how the naive man from Mars learns the ways of Earthlings, but that innocence eventually disappears.  I held on longer than Walton, though--it's only after we cut ahead and the man from Mars starts his own religion that I felt the book got weaker (though still pretty good).

It's funny what you remember when you think back on something you read so long ago.  Here are a some of the particulars that stuck with me: "grok" and "water brother"; Jubal Harshaw, the "father figure" who makes money writing short stories which he dictates to his beautiful secretaries who are always on call; Jubal discussing the pain that caryatids look like they carry; a women displaying herself and liking how men enjoy her body; "Fair Witnesses"--people who observe things objectively and can be used to give testimony in court; people with telekinetic powers having their cigarette packs following after them; the Martians taking their time to decide what to do; the realization that humor arises out of pain; and, yes, the argument for cannibalism.

Stranger In A Stranger Land, published in 1961, became a central text for the 60s counterculture, and you can see why--commune living, mystical rituals, free love and so on.  Heinlein himself, not a young man at the time, laughed at how so many young readers saw him as a guru, though he felt they'd missed the discipline required to be in this particular cult.

I don't know if the reputation of the book is what it once was, but it's still in print and continues to sell.  Walton complains that so many who don't know Heinlein see Stranger as representative of his work, which it definitely is not.  But I still like it, or remember liking it.  If nothing else, Walton should be happy it provided Heinlein with a fair amount of royalties in his later years.

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