Saturday, November 30, 2019

JM

Jonathan Miller died a few days ago.  It'll be weird not to have him around. He rose to prominence as part of the quartet that created and performed Beyond The Fringe, the satirical sketch show that revolutionized British comedy.  He went on to be a top stage and opera director, as well as a notable writer and personality.

But I'll always think of him as the brilliant actor and monologist of Beyond The Fringe.  That gang has already lost Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.  Only playwright Alan Bennett remains.  It's a different age, but their influence is still felt.




Friday, November 29, 2019

The Day After

Just a little help with a problem we have every year.



(Notice people never need help getting rid of extra candy after Halloween.)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

T-Day

Have a happy Thanksgiving.



(If you need this video today, it's probably too late.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

JS

John Simon has died.  He'd been around a long time, so it wasn't entirely unexpected. For over 50 years he was active as a critic, writing about the arts--theatre, cinema, literature, music and so on.  He was published in many periodicals, and for years was the theatre critic at New York Magazine and film critic at National Review.

Years ago I would go to the library and read collections of reviews, and his were notable for their erudition and vitriol.  The first collection of his I bought was Uneasy Stages, writings on the New York theatre from 1963 to 1973.  I hadn't seen any of the productions, but his vivid descriptions and powerful opinions were memorable on their own.  To this day it's my favorite book of his.

Simon was, let's say, hard to please.  For instance, he reviews a lot of Shakespeare in Uneasy Stages, and I'm not sure if he approves of a single production.  He had what you might call a Teutonic view of the arts (though I believe he was Hungarian and Yugoslavian)--old-fashioned high standards, not easily met.  Writers and directors of the moment--someone like, say, Harold Pinter or Jean-Luc Godard--often felt his wrath.  And while he wasn't opposed to mere entertainment, true art had to be about more.  Of course, to him, most enterprises failed even on the level of basic entertainment.

He didn't think much of Star Wars, for instance, saying it was only acceptable for kids and adults who never grew up.  He even appeared on Nightline debating Siskel and Ebert on the issue. (He also appeared as himself on an episode of The Odd Couple, debating Felix Unger about theatre.)

He was known for being particularly cruel to actors, criticizing their looks.  His argument was they have limited time to make an impression, so if they aren't physically right for the role, or are distractingly odd-looking, it gets in the way of their performance. Thus, he made fun of Barbra Streisand's nose and said Liza Minnelli looked like a beagle. I remember he once called actress Joey Lauren Adams "batrachian" (you need a dictionary to read Simon--the word means froglike).

His viciousness was so well known that he was parodied (as far as I can tell) in the movie What's Up Doc? and on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.  Famously, actress Sylvia Miles dumped a plate of food on his head at a restaurant. He was also accused of racism (he didn't like color-blind casting, by the way), sexism and other isms. Simon always laughed off attacks, believing in his taste, not caring if the crowd disagreed with him.  One wonders if he could get a position in today's sensitive world.

He was also fond of puns and plays on words.  When reviewing British comedian Norman Wisdom, he wrote "if this be Norman Wisdom, give me Saxon folly." Of the flop play A Rainy Day In Newark, he wrote "The hero [...] is named Kodiak; everything else about the play is grizzly." (That's the entire review.)

I often disagreed with Simon, but that's the case with any critic. The bigger point is we need critics like him.  While so many reviewers fall over themselves, praising the latest trendy thing, we need someone who stands for something, if just to remind us there are standards beyond what we think today.  Simon said the ultimate test is the test of time, and most things acclaimed today will be forgotten.  Critics will be forgotten as well, but Simon has a better chance to pass the test than most.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

RC

Roz Chast turns 65 today.  I hope she doesn't retire, since she's one of the best cartoonists around.

She's best known, I would say, for her quirky work in The New Yorker.  She's published a number of books, and not just compilations.  A few years ago, for instance, she put out Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant: A Memoir, a bestseller about her aging parents. And her latest, not yet out, will be entitled You Can Only Yell At Me For One Thing At A Time: Rules For Couples.

It's hard to describe her style.  She draws in a quaint, almost primitive manner, and tends to concentrate on the small oddities of life.  I guess it would be best to give some examples:

PS  Gahan Wilson, another great, just died. Here's a sample:           
 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Dumb Dave

Today is Dave Dexter Jr.'s birthday.  He was born in 1915 and died in 1990.  Who was he?  For years he was a major executive at Capitol Records.

He liked jazz, and when singers like Elvis Presley started hitting it big he resisted.  This was a bad enough attitude to have in the 50s, but it would get a lot worse.  The British record company EMI owned Capitol, and would send their singles to America, where Dexter Jr. judged if they were worthy of release.

Usually he gave British hits a thumbs down.  He didn't care how well they did across the pond--he knew the American market.  You'd think EMI might get annoyed, since they actually were in charge of Capitol, but they mostly left things alone.

Then a new phenomenon hit the U.K., Beatlemania.  The band dominated the British charts in 1963.  "Please Please Me," "From Me To You" and "She Loves You" were major hits.  But Dave Dexter Jr. stood firm.  He heard these songs (I'll assume he listened to the singles EMI sent over) and thought he knew better.  He refused to release them, so they were offered to other recording companies. (This is why some early Beatles singles have non-Capitol labels, though Capitol got the rights back a couple years later.)

Finally, EMI had had enough, and commanded Dexter Jr. (or so the story goes--Dexter would sometimes claim differently) to release "I Want To Hold Your Hand" in late 1963.  It promptly went to #1 and spread Beatlemania across the Atlantic.  The Beatles became the biggest band of all.

But Dexter Jr. wasn't done. In 1964, he rejected a bunch of other British bands for Capitol, such as The Hollies, The Animals, The Yardbirds, Gerry And The Pacemakers, The Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits. All went on to have major hits in America.

He also wasn't done with The Beatles, deciding what songs would appear on which albums--The Beatles wanted the same albums released in Britain and America, but Dexter Jr. put on fewer songs per album and switched the order. He also sometimes altered the sound.  It wasn't until 1967 that the Beatles' releases in Britain and the U.S. were synced up.

Because of his completely missing this new trend, he was demoted in 1966 and eventually left Capitol.  In a way it's sad.  Here's a guy who loved music, and spent his life in the industry, but because of a (major) blind spot, he'll be remembered--if he's remembered--as the bungler who tried to keep The Beatles out of America.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Copy, Right?

I was just in the bookstore (who does that any more?) looking at the Paul Hirsch book A Long Time Ago In A Cutting Room Far, Far Away.  It's about his life as an editor, most famously working on Star Wars (though it's hardly his only major film).

I noticed an interesting thing on the copyright page.  The book is copyrighted in 2020.  It's not quite 2020 yet, is it?  Since when can you copyright something in the future?  I thought you copyrighted something today so it couldn't be copied in the future?

Or let's put it another way.  Since it's copyrighted in 2020, and it's now 2019, it would seem the copyright isn't in effect yet.  So I can buy a copy and start making my own, selling as many as I want until New Year's Day.

And I don't want to hear Hirsch complain.  He had his chance, deciding nothing is copyrighted until next year.  He shot first.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Nothing To Cheer About

I just heard that Yahoo! is closing down its groups.  If I read the article right, the groups have already been closed down, in fact, and all their content will be removed on December 14th.

This is a sad day for Yahoo! fans.  At least it is for me.  Yahoo! has been a major website for a lot of reasons, I guess, but the only reason I ever go to it is to check into groups that share interests with me (such as ones on silent comedy and sitcoms).  There's really nothing else there that interests me that I can't get elsewhere.

I don't know how much trouble it is for the website to maintain its groups, but that's all I use it for.  Once they're gone, I'm gone.  So I guess Yahoo! has decided it doesn't need me.  So long.

Friday, November 22, 2019

No More Music

Perhaps the best cinema chain in Los Angeles is Laemmle.  They're located all over town and provide a wide variety of independent fare, as well as the occasional blockbuster (especially the NoHo 7 for the latter).

But now I hear one of the more venerable (if not better kept up) theatres in the chain--the Music Hall--has just closed.  It's a three-screen cinema (converted from one) on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills.

Many's the time I've attended showings there of titles that would not play wide, or perhaps wouldn't play anywhere else. Sometimes the cast and crew would come for their big moment. Whenever there didn't seem to be any good mainstream films out there, you'd look to the Music Hall to bail you out.  (Also, parking opens up on Wilshire at 7 pm, just as the showings are about to start--perfect timing).

I saw a handful of films at the Music Hall this year.  The last one was a few weeks ago--Semper Fi.  Never heard of it?  Exactly.  It's an action film starring Jai Courtney and Leighton Meester.  It's not going to win any awards.  But that was part of the fun--you'd take a chance seeing something at the Music Hall, and every now and then, you'd be rewarded.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

V

Francois-Marie Arouet was born 325 years ago today.  He's better known as Voltaire.  It's unclear why he adopted the name, but it certainly became well known.  One of the top figures of the Enlightenment, he was incredibly prolific, writing hundreds and hundreds of books and essays.

He was a great advocate of freedom and human rights.  I suppose his most famous quote is "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In his day this was probably a brave thing to say, and, alas, it's become brave yet again.

I don't really know his reputation in the French-speaking world, but it fascinates me how he's known in the English-speaking world.  His renown is based almost entirely on one short book. Sure, there are academics who have studied his life and his works, but the average reader knows Candide and little else.

Candide is a satire first published in 1759.  It follows a young, naïve hero through numerous adventures, going from one disaster to another.  The book makes fun of government and religion, and was denounced in its day. In fact, it was considered controversial well into the 20th century.

Candide notably mocks the philosophy of Leibniz, the German thinker who believed we live in the best of all possible worlds (and also created calculus).  This is generally called a philosophy of optimism--indeed, The Optimist is the subtitle of Candide--but it's never sounded that optimistic to me.  In fact, a philosophy that says this is as good as it gets sounds pretty depressing.

Students face a lot of classics with dread, but Candide is fun.  But I wonder if Francois-Marie would be happy to know it was for this that he'd be remembered.  He wrote so much, and a slim volume is what survives?  I like to think it would give him a good laugh.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Material Witness

I've watched the first three episodes of His Dark Materials, an eight-episode miniseries playing on HBO.  It's based on the series of young adult novels by Philip Pullman of the same name (based on a quote from Milton). These books were very popular in Europe but didn't get a lot of attention in America.  Perhaps that's why the mega-budget movie version, The Golden Compass (2007), had no sequel.

So now there's a TV series produced in part by the BBC.  The setting is an alternative Earth where things look pretty much like early to mid-twentieth century Britain, though with a lot more airships.  The biggest difference is everyone has a daemon--a sort of spirit animal (that is physical and can talk) representing their soul.

The show, as so many YA books offer, has a special child, Lyra.  As a baby she was handed over to a fancy old school near London known as Jordan College, where she could be raised and protected.  She needs protection because everything is run by the Magesterium, that declares certain ideas heresy, and has an uneasy truce with universities.

Lyra has an explorer uncle, Lord Asriel, who is doing research in the polar regions.  He's actually discovering magical things, particular that there are other worlds.  The Magesterium is trying to keep a lid on this, of course. (Some top people have crossed over into a world very much like our own.) Meanwhile, Lyra, around 12 or 13, is starting to notice the wider world.  She's taken from Jordan College by Mrs. Coulter, a well-connected adventurer.

Before she leaves, Lyra's given an alethiometer--a powerful and not perfectly understood contraption banned by the Magisterium. (It's the Golden Compass in the movie title.)

As the action moves forward, we see that people and things are not what they seem.  It's clear Lyra will be taken on a huge adventure, with plenty of friends and enemies watching her closely, knowing she's special.

I'm not quite sure what to make of the show.  The actors are fine. (The only ones I know are Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy and Clarke Peters--my favorite cast member from The Wire).  But the story, though it's moving forward, seem to go in stops and starts.  I suppose I'll keep on watching--there's nothing else on Mondays--but if it doesn't really grab me soon, I probably won't make it to the end.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Bragging For Gaston

Sometimes the trades engage in puffery and I don't know why, especially when it's so easy to look up the numbers.  For instance, I saw a recent feature saying how Shia LaBeouf is back.  The evidence?  The Peanut Butter Falcon and Honey Boy.  It's true the first title did reasonably well for a small film, and the latter is getting some decent attention, if not knocking people's socks off.  But is this a full-fledged comeback?  Hardly.

So look at this first paragraph in The Hollywood Reporter in a piece touting Gaston Pavlovich, producer of Scorsese's latest, The Irishman:

Gaston Pavlovich, a 51-year-old self-taught producer from northern Mexico, has enjoyed the kind of run that aspiring Hollywood filmmakers can only dream of.  In just seven years, he has worked alongside Jerry Lewis in Max Rose, Tom Hanks in A Hologram for the King and Mel Gibson in the biopic The Professor and the Madman.  And then in 2016, with a little luck on his side, he scored the opportunity of a lifetime to produce Martin Scorsese's religious saga Silence.

Now I'm not trying to put down Pavlovich--getting any films produced, much less several with big names attached, is a true accomplishment, and he should be proud.  But those titles aren't exactly a murderer's row.

--Max Rose was barely released, got poor reviews and made next to no money.

--A Hologram For The King got middling reviews and was a rare total flop for Hanks, grossing less than $10 million worldwide.

--The Professor And The Madman got terrible reviews, made very little money and hasn't even been released in the U.S. yet.

--Silence got good reviews, but with a decent budget and a solid cast, did very poorly at the box office.

Pavlovich is doing well for himself, no doubt.  But let's keep things in perspective.

Monday, November 18, 2019

JM

Johnny Mercer was born 110 years ago today.  He's best known as a lyricist, though he occasionally wrote the tune as well.  He wrote hundreds of song, mostly for movies and Tin Pan Alley, occasionally for Broadway.  He could write witty, he could write poetic, and he knew how to make it sound natural.










Sunday, November 17, 2019

Folly

Speaking of Stephen Sondheim, musical fans are abuzz--the show many consider his masterpiece, Follies, will finally become a film.  The original version opened on Broadway in 1971 and has since had many major productions around the world, including two Broadway revivals. The 1971 show ran 522 performances and won seven Tonys, but still lost all its money. 

It's got one of the Sondheim's most profligate scores, featuring 22 numbers (give or take a few, depending on the production and how you count them).  Many of them are written in the style of older composers, many are modern.  The show has a problem, though.  It's miserable.

The book is by James Goldman.  It's about a bunch of show biz people returning in 1971 to an old theatre about to be torn down.  We see not only the former Follies girls today, but the ghosts of what they once were.  The two central couples are Phyllis and Ben, and Sally and Buddy.  They reminisce a bit, but none of them are happy.  In the end, they each get to do a number to remind us how unhappy they are.

The book has been reworked more than once, but, as far as I can tell, there's still not much plot, and what little there is isn't a load of laughs.  Perhaps movie magic (and rewriting) can fix this, but it wouldn't seem like this is a good subject for a film.  Instead, why not make a movie of Company?  First produced in 1970, it has a better (as far as I'm concerned) score and a much shorter one.  Sure, it's told as a mosaic of short scenes, but there's something there, and with a little reworking, could be turned into an enjoyable and telling film.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

King George

George S. Kaufman was born 130 years ago today.  He was probably the most popular playwright in America in between the wars.  Certainly the most popular comic playwright.

He was odd in that, though a great wit on his own, he needed collaborators.  The only notable play he wrote alone is The Butter And Egg Man.  And it's pretty good, so it makes you wonder.

His earliest successful collaboration was with Marc Connelly, with whom he wrote Dulcy, Merton Of The Movies and Beggar On Horseback. Another highly successful collaboration was with novelist Edna Ferber, and it included such hits as The Royal Family, Dinner At Eight and Stage Door.

But his most successful collaboration has to be with Moss Hart, with whom he wrote Once In A Lifetime, You Can't Take It With You (for which they won the Pulitzer) and The Man Who Came To Dinner.

He's also known as the man who wrote for the Marx Brothers.  The team had developed their characters in Vaudeville and on Broadway, but Kaufman wrote (with Morrie Ryskind) the books for two of their Broadway shows, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers--the shows that became their first two movies.  He also wrote (again with Ryskind) the screenplay to A Night At The Opera, one of the team's best films.  Kaufman probably did more to sharpen and define their characters than anyone other than the brothers themselves.

In general he had success in musicals and revues, even though he wasn't particularly fond of music.  He wrote shows with, among other, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin (with the last he did Of Thee I Sing, which won a Pulitzer). He also often directed shows (and even acted--he played a major role in his first hit with Hart, Once In A Lifetime).

He was a reliable hitmaker in the 1920s and 1930s, but for some reason in the next two decades he never had quite the same success as a playwright.  He had the odd hit, such as The Solid Gold Cadillac (1953) written with Howard Teichmann, but most of his new shows flopped.  However, he still found success as a director, most notably his Tony-winning work on the original production of Guys And Dolls (1950).

He died in 1961.  His work continued to be revived on Broadway (mostly the stuff with Hart, though occasionally the stuff with Ferber), but his name isn't as well remembered as Broadway's top dramatists during his lifetime, such as O'Neill, Miller and Williams.

Perhaps, before too long, he'll be forgotten.  But at least he had his moment to shine.  And if you can't see his plays, you can still read them.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Sing Sing

Marriage Story is another one of those films (like The Irishman and Dolemite Is My Name) that'll play for a month in theatres if you just can't wait, and then will be on Netflix.  Most people, then, haven't seen the film, but I recently went to a screening.  I don't think I'm giving away anything by noting it's about a marriage breaking up.

Maybe I'm giving away a bit more, but no important plot information, by saying the two leads--Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver--both get to sing a Stephen Sondheim song.  Johansson does "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" while Driver performs "Being Alive."

Aren't these numbers too on the nose?  It can be fun to have a musical spot or two in a movie, but in non-musicals you don't necessarily want the songs to comment on the action.  But these two songs are both well-known numbers from Sondheim's Company--a show about how difficult marriage and relationships can be.

On top of which, isn't the film begging to be compared with Company, a show that won six Tonys including Best Musical?  Maybe writer-director Noah Baumbach should have picked a few songs from Guys And Dolls.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

O To A

Claude Monet was born on November 14, 1840.  He was the founder of French impressionist painting.  In fact, the term "impressionism" comes from his painting "Impression, soleil levant" (Impression, Sunrise).

Just one problem.  There's a guy named Manet--Edouard Manet to be specific--who was a contemporary and also a famous French impressionist.  I'm sorry, but you shouldn't have two guys in the same movement with such similar names.  One of them should have been kicked out.

So to help out, let's look at a few of their most famous painting, so you'll always know which was which.  First, some Monet.

Bain A La Grenouillere (1869):


You know what?  The rest of the titles will be in English.  Here's Impression, Sunrise, (1872):


One of many in the Water Lily series (1896 to 1926):


And now for some Manet.  Luncheon On The Grass (1868)


Boating (1874):

Related image

A Bar At The Folies-Bergere (1882):


Hope that clears things up.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Down Is Up

Party Down, my favorite sitcom of the past decade, only lasted 20 episodes, the final one airing in 2010.  Since then, there have been constant rumors of a reunion show or movie of some sort.  Now it looks like it may be happening.  At least producer Dan Etheridge just floated the idea at a panel discussion in L.A. with the cast around.

The show's concept was simple but great. We follow a misfit team of caterers in Los Angeles, most of whom see the job as a stopgap while they try to make it in show biz.  Each week's plot is built around the event they're catering.

While I'm glad to hear Etheridge say the gang might get back together, it could be tricky.  Of course, they'd all be ten years older, which may make the team, already sad in the best of times, too pathetic.  But also, most of the cast have done well for themselves and it may be hard, not to mention expensive, to bring them together.

The heart of Party Down were Henry (Adam Scott) and Casey (Lizzy Caplan), whose up-and-down relationship was central to the arc of the show.  Since PD left the air, these two have been busy, Scott on shows such as Parks And Recreation and Little Big Lies, Caplan on shows such as Masters Of Sex and Castle Rock.

The rest of the cast has also been plenty busy starring in TV shows (such as Martin Starr in Silicon Valley and Jane Lynch in Glee), doing guest shots and even writing and directing various projects.  So getting them all in one place for any length of time might be tricky. But if the show can maintain the quality of the original, it'll be worth it.

And while we're at it, where's the Community movie we've been promised?

PS  Actually, a few minutes after I read the piece about Party Down, I chanced upon a discussion of a Community movie.  Community, as readers of this blog know, is my other favorite sitcom of the past decade.

The piece was about a panel devoted to Community (at the same festival where they had the Party Down reunion).  Creator Dan Harmon and most of the original cast was there. Notably missing was Chevy Chase and Donald Glover.  While I think a Community movie could work without Chase, I think at the very least you'd want to have the other originals characters who sat at the study room table.

This group would be even tougher to get together for a movie than Party Down.  Harmon has years worth of Rick And Morty on his plate, for one thing.  And Glover has become a huge star in TV, movies and music.  Brie stars in GLOW.  McHale and Jacobs recently got off their series, but who knows how long they'll be at large?

The money required would also be huge.  So unless some lottery winner wants to throw away millions to see it, perhaps there's no chance it'll come together.  But I can't still help but believe in Six Seasons And A Movie.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Food, Glorious Food.

What's on the menu for today?  Well, let's see...

November 12 is National Pizza With The Works Except Anchovies Day.  You know, I've never seen anyone order anchovies on their pizza.  I wonder if it's actually available, or if it's just on the order sheet to fill up some space. I have no interest in anchovies, on or off a pizza.  (I'd still take anchovies over olives, though.)

It's also National Chicken Soup For The Soul Day.  No matter why you eat it, there's nothing better than a good bowl of chicken soup.  But there's a lot of bad chicken soup out there, so be careful.

It's also National French Dip Day.  I'm not much into French Dip, though I did once go to Phillipe's downtown, where the whole thing got started.

If you're not sure what you want, let me note it's also National Happy Hour Day, so you know where you can think about it.

Monday, November 11, 2019

JK

Jerome Kern died of a cerebral hemorrhage on this day in 1945.  He was only 60.  He'd been writing hits for Broadway, not to mention London and Hollywood, for 40 years at that point.

He was perhaps the greatest melodist of his time.  And though his music flows like no one else's, it was apparently painstaking work, where he'd try each note available before he found the right one.  It was worth the effort.












Sunday, November 10, 2019

Rorty

Today's the big day--new Rick And MortySeason Four starts tonight.  Being a quirky cartoon, it takes about two years to make a new season.  In fact, the last new episode of R&M was first aired on October 1, 2017.  Since then, fans have watched the 31 avilable episodes over and over.  They hold up well, but we need something new.

I've avoided finding out anything about the content of the new season.  I'd rather be surprised.  Though I admit it must be tough on creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon--each season they've got to top themselves.

The first season came out of nowhere (as far as I was concerned) and caught everyone's attention.  Fans were ready for the second and third, and the team managed to up their game.  But now with interest at a fever pitch, there's likely to be a feeling of disappointment if every episode isn't a classic.

This is a pretty common phenomenon.  Every new show that's a hit invariably has fans saying, usually by the second or third season, it's not as good as it used to be.  With Rick And Morty, when you only get ten new episodes every few years, that feeling is only magnified.

John Cleese noted this about his classic show Fawlty Towers.  There were only two seasons of six episodes each, one first broadcast in 1975, the second in 1979.  The first was considered great right off the bat, so after waiting four years, many critics and fans considering the second season a letdown.  But looked at years later, most would say the second season is superior.

So I'll cut Rick And Morty, and Justin and Dan, some slack.  But don't think I'll accept just anything, either.

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Waiting For Roxy

I recently saw, for the first time, Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990).  It's a comedy-drama directed by Jim Abrahams, who was pretty big-time back then, having directed in the 1980s Airplane! and Ruthless People with the Zucker brothers as well as Big Business.

It stars a teenage Winona Rider (who'd already done Heathers and Beetlejuice) and a fairly young Jeff Daniels.  The movie is about a small town where Roxy Carmichael--a minor film star who left the place fifteen years ago--is returning, so everyone's excited.

The film got poor reviews and flopped.  So why am I writing about it?  Because I see a major flaw.  The title is about welcoming this Roxy Carmichael back.  The whole film is leading up to this moment.  And guess what happens in the climax?  She doesn't show up.

I'm sorry, but you can't have this title and then not have her return.  I'm not saying it would have fixed the film--probably nothing could have--but come on.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Poppin'

I generally avoid fried chicken--not because I don't like it, but because I like it too much*. But after reading about the phenomenal popularity of Popeyes fried chicken sandwich, I'm tempted to give it a shot.

Now that it's back, I hear there are long lines. People are even getting into fight over it.  Is the sandwich that good?

Popeyes created the sandwich allegedly so it could compete with Chick-fil-A.  It went on sale in August and was an instant hit.  It went away--supposedly because it sold so well they ran out of the makings, though that sounds weird--and now it's back.

I have had the Chick-fil-A sandwich.  Some years ago they opened a franchise in the heart of Hollywood and I've been there a few times.  It's a pretty good sandwich, but I don't know if I'd fight over it.  Is Popeyes' appreciably different?

*I was recently in Chicago and couldn't help myself--I went and got a meal at Harold's Chicken Shack.  Quarter white.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Leon's Looks

Leon Trotsky was born 140 years ago today.  A major leader of the communist party in the Russian Revolution, he later opposed Stalin and was written out of Soviet history.  He lived in exile and was assassinated in Mexico in 1940, dying some time after being struck by an ice axe.

Partly because he opposed Stalinism, there are still some Trotskyites who think he wasn't so bad, but that's a pretty low standard. In truth, he was just another foolish communist, supporting a disastrous, insane philosophy.

But I'll give him credit for one thing--he sure looks like a communist.

With his pince-nez, van dyke and glowering eyes, he's got that look.  A picture of him should be used to define "communist" in the dictionary.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Marty's Party

Everyone is talking about Martin Scorsese's comments on Marvel films.  He recently put his thoughts down in words in a New York Times editorial.  As far as he's concerned, the Marvel movies aren't cinema as he knows it.  They're expertly done on a technical level, but...

What's not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger.  Nothing is at risk.

I certainly understand what he's saying.  When he was growing up, films almost always tried to connect on a human level (not that they always succeeded).  Even "actions" films, such as North By Northwest, were based on a story that dealt with real human emotions.

But is he missing what the Marvel films have done?  Sure, they deal with characters who are superhuman, and perhaps hard to relate to regarding everyday life.  But don't they also have to establish an emotional connection for us to care?  I'm not saying that a film is good just because it's a blockbuster, but the Marvel films have done well--better than other action movies--because, at their best, they're more than just huge action sequences and special effects.

I'm sympathetic to much of what Scorsese (as well as his contemporary Francis Ford Coppola) is saying.  I'm also tired of so many superhero films.  But that's because the public demands them, so Hollywood supplies them.  No one is forced to attend. (Scorsese may take it more personally, since he's trying to get funding for his projects--though he does keep making movies, so apparently that's working out.)

I don't know what films people will be watching a hundred years from now.  There's a good chance they won't care much for the Marvel film universe.  But then, there's also a good chance they won't care much for Scorsese's oeuvre.  Most things fade, after all.  I agree that it's relatable, emotional contact of one sort or another that is likely to keep something alive.  But who knows where the future audience will find that?

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

On The Other Hand

During the first half of Once Upon A Time In... Hollywood I was wondering why Brad Pitt agreed to take the part. He and Leonardo DiCaprio were co-leads, but Leo was getting the best of it.  The story seemed to be about Leo's character while Pitt played his assistant.  It was only during the second half that I got it.  It's there that Pitt comes to the fore.  DiCaprio's tale is still the focus, but Pitt gets to be the talented, manly, cool guy.

It's not uncommon for stars to take the showier role that may seem secondary on the page.  Think of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man--he's the one you remember (and the part that gets the Oscar), even though Tom Cruise plays the main character with the larger role.  The same with Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, where she's the boss who has all the power while her underling, played by Anne Hathaway, is the focus of the story (though, of course, Streep could only have played the boss, age-wise).

So sure, why not take the cool part?  I looked back at Pitt's career and saw he'd done it before.  In A River Runs Through It, an early breakout role, Pitt plays one of two brothers.  The main brother--we see the story through his eyes--is played by Craig Sheffer.  Pitt is the firebrand brother who doesn't make it to the end--a smaller role, but more exciting. (I'm not sure if Pitt was a big enough star at this point to choose roles, but I can see him preferring the part.)

Then there's Fight Club.  The story is seen through the eyes of the Edward Norton's character, who narrates.  Meanwhile, Pitt is in the smaller role of Tyler Durden, the mysterious character who moves the story forward. (Spoiler: it turns out they're the same person.) Pitt was a bigger star at the time, but he also knew which part was more fun--let Norton carry the plot, I can be the dangerous one.

Even in Ocean's Eleven, an ensemble piece, the leading two characters are played by George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Clooney is the ringleader, Danny Ocean himself, while Pitt plays the cool guy standing in the corner, handing out advice and getting the job done.

So let that be a lesson. If you're ever lucky enough to be a movie star, don't choose roles by the number of lines, choose them by how effective they are.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Wilder Times

I just watched Kiss Me, Stupid for at least the fifth time.  For a film I can't say I like, it certainly fascinates me.

It's a Billy Wilder comedy from 1964.  At that point he'd been on something of a streak with his new writing partner, I. A. L. Diamond--their previous films were Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1959), One, Two, Three (1961) and Irma La DouceKiss Me, Stupid, however, was a critical and financial failure.  For that matter, it was morally reviled.  It's held in higher esteem today, but is still not considered a classic.

The story, based on an Italian play, is fairly distasteful (and so, perhaps Wilder thought, perfect for him).  Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) is a music teacher in the small town of Climax, Nevada.  He and friend Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond), who works as the gas station, hope to become big-time songwriters.  Orville, married to Zelda (Felicia Farr), the prettiest gal in town, is also insanely jealous.

Into town drives singing star Dino--played by Dean Martin, sending up himself.  We even start the movie with a bit of his Vegas act.  He stops for gas but Barney secretly ruins his car, telling him he'll have it running again next morning.  He gets Dino to stay with Orville, figuring Orville will be able to sell him some of their songs.

Dino, however, is the randy sort who wants some action. He'd even be glad to spend some time with Orville's wife.  Rather than throw him out, Orville provokes an argument with Zelda, who leaves.  In her place, Barney supplies good-time girl Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak) from the local saloon.

Dino seduces Orville's "wife" while Orville plays him some of his songs.  The plan seems to be working, except that Orville gets jealous even over a fake wife and tosses Dino out.  Dino ends up at the saloon where he meets Zelda, thinking she's Polly.  He stays overnight with her and Zelda convinces him to buy a song from the team.

So why doesn't it work for me?  The plot has some interesting twists, but I think there are two main problems.  First, Ray Walston. A fine character actor, he was not a leading man in movies.  He got the role only after Wilder regular (and Felicia Farr's husband) Jack Lemmon was too busy and Peter Sellers suffered a heart attack during filming. (Sellers and Wilder did not get along, probably because Sellers liked to improvise and Wilder demanded the actors be word perfect, so it's possible there would have been trouble even without the heart attack.  In fact, Wilder could have waited for Sellers to get better, as he would do for Walter Matthau in his next film, The Fortune Cookie, but he decided to get another actor.)

Orville has the most screen time, and as Walston plays him, he's just too unpleasant.  Maybe no one could have made Orville's outrageous jealousy work, but I have to think a leading man like Lemmon would have us on his side at the start and never quite lose our sympathy, even when he does nasty things.

Worse--this is what really kills the film for me--is Dino being a bit too wise to what's going on.  It's already sort of unpleasant that Orville is pimping out Polly--even though this is the kind of thing she does.  But I think the farcical implications would work better, and the morality be more acceptable, if Dino weren't aware of what Orville is doing.  But it's made clear Dino knows Orville is offering up his wife for a song.  The only thing he doesn't know is it's not really Orville's wife, but it's still unpleasant to see him try to seduce her with Orville in the room.

There is another slight problem.  Wilder was a major writer and director for decades, and was known for pushing the envelope during that era of censorship (which would come to an end a few years after Kiss Me, Stupid). Wilder wanted--indeed, shot--a scene near the end where it's implied Zelda sleeps with Dino.  It had to be reshot so that Dino falls asleep and there's no chance of any sexual relations. (Though it's okay for Orville to take Polly to bed.  An odd double standard.)  I don't think Wilder's original version would have saved the film, but it certainly would have worked better.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Take A Sad Play And Make It Better

The Beatles' song "Help!" was slower in its original form, until the band rocked it up.  And while some may claim the hit version overpowered the sadness of the tune, it's hard to deny it's a great single.

I was thinking of that when reading about the relationship between Tennessee Williams and director Elia Kazan in John Lahr's fine biography of the former.  Williams was an established playwright with The Glass Menagerie under his belt when Kazan took on what would be his most famous work, A Streetcar Named Desire.  A lot of things made that play one of the most memorable in Broadway history, but no small part of it can be credited to Kazan's sculpting of the 1947 production.

By the mid-50s, Williams hadn't had a hit in a while, and so with his new script, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, he needed Kazan--who had plenty of hits, on stage and on screen, without Williams--more than Kazan needed him.  He had to entice Kazan.

Kazan could see it was a powerful work, perhaps the equal of Streetcar.  But he had his problems, especially with the third act.  Before Kazan would commit, he wanted changes, and he wanted more once he was on board.

The biggest change he got out of Williams was the return of Big Daddy in act three, as well as a softening of Brick and a more hopeful ending.  Williams could have resisted and the play would have gone on anyway, but he gave in.  Still, after it opened and was a huge hit, Williams would often complain about how he'd sold out his vision.

Later productions sometimes reverted to the original third act.  And the publication of the play included both versions.  So we can compare the two.  Artistically, it's hard to say, but stage-wise, it's pretty easy.  There's real life logic and stage logic.  Certain things are simply more effective on stage--resolution over irresolution; a protagonist moving forward rather than being stuck in one place; a character who gets bad news and then, rather than leaving the stage, responds to it.

I can't blame Kazan for wanting these changes.  But on top of that, I think he made the play better.  Williams whined all the way to the bank, but just because he didn't the play wasn't as "tough" as he wanted it didn't mean it was ruined.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Watch Men?

Tomorrow will be the third episode of HBO's new series Watchmen, but I might be done already.  And I'd really been looking forward to it.  It's created by the great Damon Lindelof, who did Lost and The Leftovers.  But he seems to have taken a wrong turn in adapting the classic comic into a show.

It's really more a reimagining than an adaptation--not unlike how the TV series Fargo deals with the film. This is all to the good.  The too-faithful movie version of Watchmen didn't work, and, in any case, a series needs more to keep going.

But Lindelof made a disastrous decision.  The comic is about regular (for the most part) people dressing up and acting like vigilantes/superheroes.  It's set in the present (i.e., when the comic was published) and much of the world is still recognizable.  What's fascinating is how much has changed.  One thing the comic has on its mind are cold war issues, and I guess Lindelof felt that wouldn't work any more.  Instead, he's put racial issues front and center.

So the new Watchmen world is a place where, due to the last hundred years of history (that we get in dribs and drabs--two episodes in there's still a lot to learn), America today has roving bands of white supremacists committing mayhem (and wearing Rorschach masks--Rorschach was one of the main vigilantes in the original), and the official response seems to be creating something approaching a police state.

It doesn't have to precisely mirror our world to have something to say, but the series, so far, is embarrassingly heavy-handed in its politics and silly in its plotting.  It doesn't help that the central characters, particularly Sister Night (a new superhero created by Lindelof), are not particularly engaging or stirring.  Sister Night is played by Regina King, who's done fine work in the past--including The Leftovers.  In fact, the character sometimes seems like a leftover from that show, which was a poetic meditation on grieving, and doesn't quite fit in this new setting.

There's a lot more going on, with Doctor Manhattan (a character in the comic) living on Mars and Adrian Veidt (also in the comic) writing plays in his castle in England (I think).  But the racial stand-off so far is the main action, and it's tiresome.  Perhaps there'll be some twists and turns that make the action more intriguing and the politics more subtle.  But if it doesn't change fast, we'll just have to write this one off.  A shame.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Dislodged

AMC's  Lodge 49 is being canceled after two seasons. Unfortunate.  While I can't say I'm a big fan, I do find it an intriguing near-miss.  It's a weird story about an ex-surfer, lay-about pool cleaner in Long Beach who joins a local Lodge of a mysterious fraternal order and how it changes his life.

What's weird about the show is it doesn't depend on tropes that make other shows play.  It's not about cops or organized crime so there's very little violence and the show can't depend on whacking someone for suspense.  Also, though it's sort of a fable, with bizarre characters, it's not a fantasy that relies on magic (much).  It's just average people in an average place trying to find something special in their lives.

Wyatt Russell is (was) good as Dudley, the lead character.  Even better, I think, was Sonya Cassidy as his more cynical sister, who was generally off on her own adventures. Also good in the large cast were Brent Jennings, a salesman and member of the Lodge who becomes Dudley's closest friend, and David Pasquesi, another Lodge member who believes in alchemy.

The action takes place all over, not just at the Lodge. In fact, just as much a home base for the show is a strip mall that includes a donut shop where people hang out, a pawn shop that serves as everyone's bank, and the former pool shop that was owned by Dudley's late father.

In season two, the gang go on a mission to Mexico, where they recover some secret scrolls. Since this isn't Harry Potter, the scrolls weren't magic (necessarily)--the magic was about what happened to the characters on the mission.  It looks like Lodge 49 has seen its last mission, though who knows, maybe another channel will pick it up.

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