Friday, June 30, 2017

Is Stan The Man?

I'm reading Dancing On The Ceiling: Stanley Donen And His Movies by Stephen M. Silverman.  Donen doesn't generally make lists of top directors, but he's done some fine work (Singin' In The Rain,  Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Funny Face, Charade), so it's interesting to hear the stories behind those films.

But what I find fascinating about the book is how contemptuous Silverman can be.  He'll mention some film in passing and note it's not very good, even some of Donen's that many respect.

To pick an example, the first film Donen directed (actually, co-directed with Gene Kelly), On The Town, is considered a classic by some, but Silverman points out its weaknesses. (And he's not wrong.  The decision to throw out most of Leonard Bernstein's score for mediocre Roger Edens' tunes was a big mistake.)

Or Silverman will slight an famous actor, such as Gene Kelly himself, for his annoying smile, and penchant for lengthy ballets that kill the action.  Once again, I'm not saying he's wrong, just that this is not the kind of stuff you regularly read in such bios.

And Donen joins in--or perhaps created the atmosphere to begin with.  He's a guy who worked on Broadway as a teen and was directing major films by his mid-20s, but doesn't treat it like it's a big deal.  He admits he made plenty of so-so movies, and even (at times) puts down Singin' In The Rain, which is the one film you'd think he'd say is his certified classic.

I like it.  I'd rather have an honest opinion than puffery, or fan service.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Best Of The Best

After reading a new book on The Beatles, I saw a new idea (to me) for a Beatles' list--best song per album.  Might as well give it a shot.  We'll use the original British albums.  (This is gonna be hard.  Check back with me next week to see if I still agree with myself.)

Please Please Me -- "There's A Place"

With The Beatles -- "Money (That's What I Want)" (only cover to win)

A Hard Day's Night -- "Can't Buy Me Love"

Beatles For Sale -- "Eight Days A Week"

Help! --  "Ticket To Ride"

Rubber Soul -- "Nowhere Man"

Revolver -- "I'm Only Sleeping"

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band --  "With A Little Help From My Friends"

Magical Mystery Tour --  "Penny Lane"

The Beatles (White Album) -- "Back In The U.S.S.R."

Yellow Submarine -- "Hey Bulldog"

Abbey Road -- "Here Comes The Sun" (George's only win)

Let It Be -- "Two Of Us"

Past Masters, Volume One -- "I Feel Fine"

Past Masters, Volume Two -- "Day Tripper"

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Never Change

My local drugstore has an automated checkout.  As soon as I pick the option to pay with cash, the computer voice says something like "insert coins first, and then bills."

First time I heard it, I wondered why the machine would care what order the money comes in.  But after thinking about it for a second, it's clear there's a reason.

Once you've paid the bill, the machine gives you change.  Now with a human cashier, if something costs, say, $5.33, you might hand over a ten dollar bill and then a quarter and a dime.  But that wouldn't work with a machine.

Once you put in the ten dollar bill, it recognizes you've paid, and won't take any more, but will give you change.  So the programmers decided we need to be told to put in whatever coins we might use first.

Should I admire the efficiency, or be offended for being thought so dumb I can't figure this out?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mooning The River

When you watch an old movie, you notice things that no one noticed when it was first released, due to how times have changed.

The most obvious difference in countless movies is how everyone smokes.  But recently, watching Breakfast At Tiffany's, something else struck me.  As you may recall, there's a scene where Buddy Ebsen follows George Peppard through Central Park.

Ebsen buys a Cracker Jack, tears off the lid and throws it away--right on the ground, no garbage can in sight.  Soon after, George Peppard picks out the prize, tears it open, and throws the paper on the ground without giving it a thought.

It was a time when tossing garbage anywhere was apparently not a big deal.  I'm not saying it doesn't happen any more, but people at least look for a garbage can first.  (Why worry about garbage?  There were so many cigarette butts on the ground who'd notice?)  The whole country must have looked like a movie theatre floor.

Not surprising, considering it was 1961, a decade before this:


Monday, June 26, 2017

Stuck

Over the weekend I saw Weekend (1967).  I'd seen bits of it before, but never all the way through.

If you know anything about it, you know it's the film with the eight-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam.  It was, I believe, Jean-Luc Godard's last film as a leader of the "New Wave" before he denounced cinema as bourgeois and went off in even weirder directions.  Some call it a classic.

I responded to the film the same way I do to most of Godard's work in the 60s.  There is a plot of sorts, but since the people in it don't act like any people who have ever lived, it's impossible to care about them, or the story.  There are some fun moments, but overall, for all its violence and fiery rhetoric (a fair amount of the film consists of speeches filled with revolutionary claptrap), it doesn't add up to much.

Short excerpts of this stuff can be fun, but as a feature it gets tiresome pretty quickly.  I admit his stuff is so offbeat it can be memorable, but that doesn't mean its entertaining. As to being edifying, it isn't, but I wouldn't care if it were.

There are plenty who defend Godard.  They think the problem is others don't get him.  They're can think what they want.  I think he's the emperor's new clothes.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Get The Picture

I was watching a movie where the main guys got together and went over some blueprints to decide how they're going to break into a building.

What movie?  Does it matter?  We've seen this moment hundreds of time.

Which had me thinking--can you really get blueprints so easily?  There's never a scene where someone gets the blueprints, they just show up like they're no big deal*.

In fact, when it comes to buildings, I would guess they don't like to give out blueprints for the specific purpose of avoiding groups of people getting together and planning how to break in.

*One famous exception is Star Wars, where the whole plot was built around getting copies of blueprints to HQ, and it wasn't easy.  (And then a bunch of fanboys whined that it was too easy to figure out the Death Star's vulnerability.)

The Aristocrats


Isn't it Rodham?

Regardless, I tell ya, I could listen to it a million times and still find it just as satisfying.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Join The Club

Whatever happened to Glee? It used to be so big.  (I know, it got canceled.)

The show was mostly ridiculous, but some of the musical numbers were fun.  And with YouTube, you can cut straight to the good stuff.





Friday, June 23, 2017

Capital Idea

Fargo just ended its third season.  It had its problems, but it was still entertaining.

An important part of the plot was the villain, Varga, taking over a parking lot business as a front to borrow many millions of dollars, leaving it in ruins.

In an interview with the show's creator, Noah Hawley, The Hollywood Reporter asks about "the seasons' general dark tone about truth and unfettered Capitalism."

Here's a line from the A.V. Club's review of the finale: "I love [IRS agent] Larue Dollard's explanation to Gloria about how Varga's scheme was largely legal, apart from the fact that he didn't pay taxes."

Seems to me some people don't quite understand capitalism, unfettered or otherwise.

Capitalism does allow private parties to make contracts regarding what they do with their own property, and it's possible these contracts will advantage one party and disadvantage another.

However, this system doesn't work unless there is a neutral party to determine who is right when disputes arise. This is where a government, and its court system, enters the picture.

And within these systems, some contracts are no good from the start--those that were entered into due to fraud, intimidation and outright violence, for instance.  These are some of the methods Varga uses.  Maybe an IRS agent would be blind to this because he cares so much about the tax consequences, but Varga very openly broke numerous laws.

Some people love to compare capitalists and gangsters, but there is a difference, and it's not that hard to tell.

Venice's first female gondolier announces he's not female


Venice's first female gondolier announces he's transgender

The important thing here, obviously, is for this San Francisco newspaper to get its pronouns straight, so to speak. Don't people go to jail for that sort of thing in Britain?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Granted

An documentary popped up out of nowhere on Showtime about Cary Grant.  This is really the sort of show you'd expect on TMC.  But any look at Cary Grant's life is appreciated.  I've always considered him the ultimate movie star, and someone who was in more than his share of Hollywood classics.

It's told mostly on chronological order, going over the familiar landmarks: his rough childhood in Bristol; coming to America as part of an acrobatic troupe; being on Broadway; getting into movies; early days as a somewhat stiff leading man; Virginia Cherrill; Sylvia Scarlet; finding out his mother is alive; The Awful Truth; Howard Hawks; Barbara Hutton; Alfred Hitchcock; Penny Serenade; None But The Lonely Heart; Betsy Drake and so on up till his final days.

But the show is different in that it attempts more than most to get into his inner life.  It has speculation from a number of film experts, but also includes excerpts from his unpublished autobiography.

Unfortunately, he wrote it around the time he was going through LSD therapy, and he keeps referencing its effects, and talks a lot about his feelings.  I'd rather hear (movie fan that I am) what it was like working with Hawks or Irene Dunne, or whatever was going on in his professional career through the years.

The doc also includes lots of rare footage, include film shot by Grant himself.  Unfortunately, there's also a lot of arty stuff, with images of seashores and the like which (even if shot by Cary--we don't know) don't tell you much.  And too much mood music, and well as lots of unidentified excerpts from his films that supposedly tell us something about his life.

If it doesn't nothing else but help introduce him to a new generation, it'll be a worthy effort.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What's Up

I watched T. J. Miller's special Meticulously Ridiculous on HBO.  As stand-up--or perhaps you could call it performance art--it wasn't much.  He's got a lively persona, but not the material to back it up.

The only reason I'm writing about it is near the end he started telling a story (that wasn't true) about a neurologist named Dr. Stokol.  And I perked up.  I know this guy! I saw him a few years ago to check out something--don't worry, it was no big deal.

It did, however, seem odd that T. J. would tell a story that's at least partly made up. I assume he did have some neurological issue, and did see Dr. Stokol, but the specific encounter Miller describes is too bizarre to be real.

Did he get permission from Dr. Stokol?  It's not the sort of publicity a doctor would want, I'd think.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

No Kidding

I just reread William Goldman's classic The Season.  The book is his observations on Broadway during the 1967-68 season.  It's highly opinionated and still pertinent.  Plus it's enjoyable even if you haven't seen the original productions discussed, or don't even care that much about Broadway.

Certain things stick out today.  One thing that got to me was Goldman's attitude towards Hello, Dolly!, a 1964 blockbuster still playing when Goldman researched and wrote the book. This doesn't phase Goldman:

Just as our parents cannot explain the success of Abie's Irish Rose to us, I think we are going to struggle slightly to explain Dolly!'s success to our children.

Goldman is entitled to his opinion, and maybe he has a point.  Perhaps Dolly is more flash than substance.  But it's certainly held up, as evidenced by the four Tony Awards the Bette Midler revival just won.

Goldman's still around.  I wonder if he watched the Tonys, shaking his head. Or perhaps calling his kids to explain how the show isn't that great.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Adventures In CC

I recently saw A Canterbury Tale--a rarely shown Michael Powell film--on TCM.  It's an oddity.  Released in 1944, with a wartime theme, one of its leads is real US army sergeant John Sweet playing a US army sergeant.  His performance is engaging if amateurish. He'd never act again.

But because he speaks as people spoke then, and not today, it led to some confusion with whomever typed up the closed captions.

Two examples:

1) Sweet is walking up a hill with a British soldier. He complains about how much he hates tea.  The Brit says the Nazis and the Japanese are attacking tea-drinking nations, so America should join in.

Sweet complains it doesn't do much for the wind, but the British soldier counters since the war began, he can now walk up the hill with no problem.

But the typist didn't seem to be familiar with "wind" as one's breath, so turns it into a modern locution.  Sweet ends up saying tea doesn't do "much for the win." FTW, baby!

2)  Sweet hasn't heard from his girl back home. He finally gets some letters, and they're from Australia.

He's surprised, but figures she's joined the WACs.

That's not how the CC gets it, though.  Instead, we discover she's "joined the wax."

How could that get through?  Did the person translating just figure I don't understand it, but he said it, so I'll type it.

PS During another Michael Powell film, the better known Black Narcissus, set at a convent in India, one character refers to the fable of a prince and a beggar maid.  But it comes out "prince and a bear maid." Maybe on Game Of Thrones, but not here.

Later, a character asks how's the coffee at the convent, and a sister warns him it's full of grit.  Except the CC says it's "full of grits," which is not the same thing at all.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

FD


Is that you, Winston?

"I’ve been warning about this, and nobody gave a sh*t."

 As a friend used to say, "There's something up my sleeve, but it hasn't quite gelled yet."

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Fruit, Too

Today is National Eat Your Vegetables Day. I don't know if I approve.  I mean, shouldn't every day be "eat your vegetables day"?


Friday, June 16, 2017

Kohl Story

Helmut Kohl, chancellor who reunited Germany, dies at 87

In noting the former Chancellor's passing, let me relate a story from law school in Chicago. I note that a few days ago, we took occasion to note Adam West's passing and in so doing, note a funny-ish story relating to those days that involved Batman, car shows and breast-themed autographs.  You really need to go read it for yourself- its down below in the comments under the Wonder Woman post (Us guys can be freewheelin' when it comes to subject matter).

Anyway, in the mid-80s, Chancellor Kohl came to visit campus.  It was very big deal-a visiting head of state*.  Security was ramped-up.   Someone in their infinite wisdom decided that it would be a good idea to enforce the City's parking ordinances in a several mile radius of where the German leader would be speaking.   Let's just say that at the time, traffic safety in Hyde Park** had not shown itself to be a major priority.   I seem to recall that for the better part of a year, we had an open unguarded 6-foot deep trench running down the middle of our street while cars continued using the narrow remaining concrete lanes on either side of it.  It was a crowded feral world when it came to finding a place to put your vehicle-people grabbed a spot where they could and were basically left alone.  

So having drivers awake to a pricey yellow parking ticket the morning before our NATO ally's grand entrance to campus led to somewhat of a less secure state of affairs.  " I am so enraged by the parking security for Chancellor Kohl's visit that I want to shoot him" is a phrase I may have heard around the bungalow at the time.***

In light of national news this week, maybe now is not the time to tell a semi-ironic story about assassinations of political officials in the context of noting the putative target's recent death.   Maybe -but if not now, when? 

RIP Herr Chancellor.



* I say this despite the fact that when Canadian PM Brian Mulroney came to visit later, it wasn't such a big deal.  

** "No place to hide.  No place to park."

*** As I believed this phrase to have been uttered ironically, if exasperatedly, at no time did I believe the health of the German leader was in danger.  As evidence I note, he lived for 30+ years following the events related herein.

I [heart] NY

I'm a big fan of Neil Young.  Check out my profile on the left and you'll see.  Which is why a friend recently gave me a "music guide" to Young.  It takes you through every album he ever recorded, discussing each song, right up to the present.

And boy has this guy been busy.  Since 1969 he's put out 40 albums, not including live albums, compilations, soundtracks and work with other groups (like Buffalo Springfield and CSNY).

His last album (so far), released in late 2016, at the age of 71, was Peace Trail.  I admit I haven't heard it yet*.  In fact, like a lot of people, I'm far less familiar with his recent catalog than his work in the 70s and 80s.

But surveying the whole arc of his career, what you discover is a brilliant but erratic artist.  Sometimes he'd put together an album which is pretty great all around--Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Gold Rush, Tonight's The Night, Rust Never Sleeps, Freedom, Ragged Glory.

But just as often he'd put out something that mixes some great stuff with much weaker or even off-putting material.  Some would claim this is intentional--that after his biggest hit, Harvest (with his biggest single, "Heart Of Gold"), as he himself says, he "headed for the ditch."  But I don't believe he released intentionally bad work.  I just think he put out what felt right at the time, even if it was almost daring his millions of fans to follow him in a new direction.

It's certainly nice when an artist puts out consistently great material, but how many do that?  The Beatles, I suppose, but they recorded for less than a decade.  If you throw in their solo stuff, it's more hit and miss.

The point is, I suppose, with an artist like Young, even when the album isn't great through and through--even when it's not particularly good overall--there's still a cut or two or three which get to you. On The Beach, Zuma, Stars 'n Bars, even stuff in his lost decade, like Trans or Everbody's Rockin' or This Notes For You, feature material that can stand up with anything he did.

And that's probably what counts from a great artist.  Their best work moves you more deeply than what others do.  A decent artist who puts out album after album of solid work, in the long run, doesn't matter as much.

* Guess what?  I just went to YouTube to check out "Peace Trail" and it's pretty good.

The part is the whole

"Instead of demonizing those who choose to work in the federal bureaucracy, we should be immensely grateful for their service."

That's the takeaway paragraph from a thoughtful defense of an office with 45 people in it.

Sigh.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Connections

Three of my favorite shows right now are Better Call Saul, Fargo and the new Twin Peaks.  Each is the TV highlight of its day, but all have certain problems.

Better Call Saul, the most realistic of the three (allowing for dramatic exaggeration), has a built-in problem.  It's really two separate storylines.  You've got the tale of Jimmy McGill turning into Saul, and you've got Mike's machinations, which tie in closely to Gus Fring.  Except we know from Breaking Bad that Saul doesn't know Gus, or at least doesn't know who he really is.

So even though Mike works for Jimmy now and then, what you've got is two different shows.  They're both entertaining, but it's not like BB, where everything, one way or another, tied into Walter White's arc.

Season 3 of Fargo has a similar problem.  Each season is about a bunch of distinct people who are brought together by crime.  But this season, the stories seem further apart than usual, and while they'll no doubt (mostly) join by next week's finale, things have been too segregated.

Once again, while the individual stories may be enjoyable, it's a lot better if they combine into a satisfying whole.

Then there's the return of Twin Peaks.  Unlike the previous two shows, this one is only at the midpoint.  But it's got completely separated stories--in some cases, you have no idea how it is they're in the same show.  Most of them aren't in set in Twin Peaks.  The only thing that really holds the show together, and just barely, is Kyle MacLachlan, square in the center of things.

But somehow, with David Lynch, it doesn't matter.  His story, and style, is so surreal, that you just enjoy what's in front of you.  I expect it to all tie together (though not necessarily makes sense) along the way, but otherwise, I'm just happy to be along for the ride.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Plan Ahead

According to showrunner Ron Moore, the cylons never had a plan on Battlestar Galactica.  This may sound like no big deal, except each show started:

The cylons were created by man.  They evolved.  They rebelled.  There are many copies.  And they have a plan.

Now Moore admits the reason they said this was that it sounded good.

Actually, it was pretty obvious to fans that the cylons had no plan, and the producers were making it up as they went along.  The cylons did have a plan in the pilot, and pulled it off, killing most humans.  After that it was a chase, where something seemed to be happening. Then the show tried new things which didn't work well, and by the time they wrapped it up, things had gotten fairly ridiculous.

In some ways I can't blame Moore.  It's hard enough to get a show on the air, and make it entertaining each week.  But really, you shouldn't promise something you can't deliver.  It makes the whole show worse in retrospect (after you've cashed all those checks--which was the real plan).

Maddening math

"An Obama administration program to encourage the use of electronic health records made over $729 million in erroneous payments, according to a new audit."

Argh.

So what. Was the program a $750 million program? Or was it a $100 billion program?

Reporting numbers is tricky, but it doesn't have to be. You've got your absolute value, your marginal value, your average value, your historical value, your various comparative values, all kinds of values. So many that it could eat up a 500 word story in nothing flat.

Nevertheless, you have to choose the ones that are most salient--and failing to do so renders the lead point meaningless.

This story turns out to be salvageable, because three paragraphs away it tells you the program spent $6 billion over the audit period. Plaudits to the reporter for including that, though given its distance from the lead fact, it's not clear whether it was accidental or intentional that it was included.

Bonus question: Which is the better "fact," that a new school building cost $15 million, or, as the authorizing documents show, $14,793,243?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonder Woman, Hear Them Roar

Patty Jenkins, director of the blockbuster Wonder Woman, just tweeted about a note her producer sent her on how kindergarteners are reacting to the movie.

They start out pretty cute:

--On Monday, a boy who was obsessed with Iron Man, told me he had asked his parents for a new Wonder Woman lunchbox

--A little girl said 'When I grow up I want to speak hundreds of languages like Diana'

--This girl had her parents revamp her Beauty and the Beast birthday party in THREE DAYS because she simply had to have a Wonder Woman party.

Eventually, however, we get to this item:

--A boy threw his candy wrapping in the floor and a 5-year-old girl screamed 'DON'T POLLUTE YOU IDIOT, THAT IS WHY THERE ARE NO MEN IN TEMYSCIRA'

I wouldn't have put that one on the list.  Did someone think it's charming?  Isn't it kind of ugly and depressing?

Not merely fake news, but hate media

"Under Trump, US militias not ready to lay down arms"

Neither are they buying Prius cars in record numbers, flying to the moon more than the population at large, or attending Vermont flower shows next week. The list of things they are not ready to do is quite extensive.

And what does Trump have to do with this infinite list? Nothing, of course.

Perhaps the story is about Berkeley Brownshirts rioting and threatening to kill those who disagree with their fascist views? Well, only indirectly. The connection between ABC news and the Berkeley twits is about as strong as the connection between Trump and this mysterious "militia."

Gotta love that last sentence, though: " "I feel a connection to President Trump."

Uh-huh. Do the Berkeley Brownshirts feel a connection to President Obama? Did ABC news write that they did?

And talk about unclear on the concept. Here's a little hint for Manhattan Media: If the question is when does the militia lay down arms, a first pass answer is "never."

Monday, June 12, 2017

That's Rich

I was glancing through Hot Seat, a collection of Frank Rich's reviews when he was The New York Times' theatre critic from 1980 to 1993.  I was in New York a lot during those years, so it's fascinating to read about productions I saw.

Broadway producers have long complained about the Times.  They believe it's too powerful--for many theatregoers, it's the only review they read.  If you don't get the Times, it's hard to be a hit.

Rich seems to be sensitive regarding this charge.  He sometimes adds comments after his review, and he often notes how some show was a hit or a flop despite his review.

Come on, Frank. Own it.  Okay, the Times can't decide everything, but there is no stronger voice on Broadway.  You should be proud that you had the power, not try to pretend you were just another guy with his own opinion.

I am not a crook

The Washington Post has come full circle in the last 43 years. We've gone from "I am not a crook" to "the director of the FBI is not a crook."

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I'd Buy That For A Dollar

So there are 22 U.S. retailers on the edge of bankruptcy.  This is apparently a high number.

If you're curious, here's the list:

Boardriders SA  - sporting subsidiary of Quiksilver
The Bon-Ton Stores - parent of department store chain
Fairway Group Holdings - food retailer
Tops Holding II - supermarket operator
99 Cents Only Stores - discount retailer
TOMS Shoes - footwear company
David's Bridal - wedding dresses and formalwear seller
Evergreen AcqCo 1 LP - parent of thrift chain Savers
Charming Charlie - women's jewelry and accessories
Vince LLC - clothing retailer
Calceus Acquisition - owner of Cole Haan footwear firm
Charlotte Russe - women's clothing
Neiman Marcus Group - luxury department store
Sears Holdings - owner of Sears and Kmart.
Indra Holdings - holding company owner of Totes Isotoner
Velocity Pooling Vehicle - does business as MAG, Motorsport Aftermarket Group
Chinos Intermediate Holdings - parent of J. Crew Group
Everest Holdings - manages Eddie Bauer brand
Nine West Holdings - clothing, shoes and accessories
Claire's Stores - accessories and jewelry
True Religion Apparel - men's and women's clothing
Gymboree - children's apparel
A lot of them I don't know, but some have been big names for much of my life.

I understand companies disappear every year, but it'll be sad to see them go.  The question becomes is this a warning of disastrous times ahead, or a huge amount of creative destruction?

The one that really gets to me is 99 Cents Only Stores.  I've never understood how they can sell their products so cheap, but I figured they must have a working business model to be so widespread.  And, if we're heading into big trouble, you'd think this is the store that would be recession proof.

Just goes to show you nothing is certain.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Dylan Talks!

Impressive Nobel speech from Dylan.  I know he's getting paid for it, but he really outdid himself.


Friday, June 09, 2017

James And The Giant Film

I recently saw Giant (1956) for the first time on the big (well, fairly big) screen. Before I'd only caught it in bits and pieces on TV.  The only way to take it in is in a theatre, where there are no distractions. Because the film is long--201 minutes. And though the story takes place over decades, to be honest, not that much happens, especially regarding character development.

Based on Edna Ferber's novel, which I haven't read (has anyone read an Edna Ferber novel these days?), it's about a Texas rancher, Rock Hudson, who meet Elizabeth Taylor out East and brings her back home.

She adjusts to ranch life, and it adapts to her.  Meanwhile, ranch hand James Dean acquires some land and discovers oil.  Through the years, Liz and Rock's kids grow up while Dean becomes one of the richest men in Texas.  Eventually even Rock recognizes ranches are going away and sells out to Dean.  Meanwhile, he learns to be tolerant of Mexicans.

That's about it. Really.  I'm sure this story could have cut an hour without losing anything.  Best Director winner George Stevens always did take too long, especially in his post-WWII work.

But what I want to talk about is the acting.  Rock is stiff and handsome, which is enough for the role, I suppose. (He's certainly better than a very young Dennis Hopper as his son. Hopper is so stiff he makes Hudson looks like he's improvising.)  Liz Taylor is considerably more lively.

But then James Dean appears on screen and suddenly it's a new ballgame.  Up to this point, we're watching your basic 1950s epic.  Lots of vistas, lots of color, lots of time to eat your pop corn.  And the performances are done in classic Hollywood epic style.

Then Dean shows up, with his "modern" style, and you wonder how he got into this film. He only starred in three movies before dying young, and the other two are built around his character, so he doesn't stick out as much.

Here, however, everyone is declaiming their lines very clearly, while Dean is mumbling, and hemming and hawing.  Others stand tall and straight, proudly letting us see what who they are. Dean can't stand straight, and he can't stand still, always doing something.

The Dean style would take over films (one reason why modern epics feel so different), but back then, it's as if this virus has been released.

And I'm not complaining.  His character, Jett Rink, is actually fairly ridiculous.  And his story, working at the edges, isn't really that important.  Yet he's riveting. Nothing else in the film matters when he appears.

It makes you wonder what would have happened if he'd lived.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

The DTs

Critic David Thomson is nothing if not prolific. He seems to have a new book out on movies every year.

I recently read his 2015 work Why Acting Matters, and it made me think he should take a little more time. Thomson's contribution to the "Why X Matters" series is under 200 (short) pages, but mostly feels like filler.

The book is his maunderings on acting, high on speculation and low on facts or deep analysis.  He spends a lot of time discussing the personalities and performances of Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando--perhaps the two greatest actors of the 20th century--but by the end, we don't feel we've learned much.

The book is interesting here and there, discussing the effect of film and The Method on modern acting, but what he has to say of interest could have been said in a Film Comment article.

There are already a fair number of books on acting, but there's always room for another--if the author has something to say.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Nothing Left

While we're at it, let's say goodbye to The Leftovers, a beautiful, poetic show that ended its HBO run on Sunday after three seasons and 28 episodes.  It was Damon Lindelof's first major TV show since Lost, and it ended well.  There was an explanation for what happened, but it was ambiguous enough that we don't know if we should believe it. In fact, aside from the Departure that started the show, we're not sure if we should believe in any of the unusual things going on, though we know in this world perhaps there's something to them.  More important, it was an essentially happy ending (spoiler coming), with the two central characters coming together. Actually, each season of The Leftovers has had a similar sort of ending since they were never sure if they'd be picked up.

Lost had all sorts of problems with its ending.  But then, that show was bigger and so much more had been promised. (The Leftovers made sure to promise almost nothing.)

An article on The Leftovers in Vanity Fair makes this point:

Lindelof learned the most crucial lesson he could have from the (disproportionately) negative reaction to the Lost finale. No answer to a mystery of that magnitude was ever going to satisfy viewers, so why not put the focus somewhere else entirely.

As much as I loved Lost, and enjoyed The Leftovers, this lets Lindelof too easily of the hook.  Yes, making sure the concentration was on just letting the characters be happy (for a change) was maybe enough to Leftovers fans.  But saying the negative reaction to Lost was disproportionate is wrong. They screwed up, and big.

Of course, no answer would be perfectly satisfactory to everybody.  Of course, some liked the Lost ending, and even those who didn't like it disagree on why it didn't work. But they were so far away from a satisfactory ending, and, for that matter, left so much unanswered, that they deserved the reaction.  In fact, Lindelof (and partner Carlton Cuse) made sure the audience got a happy ending on the personal side just like The Leftovers, but it wasn't, and couldn't have been enough.  Not if the show in the entire final season was constantly moving in the wrong direction, and landed in the wrong spot.

Now there were some nice moments, and smart ideas in season six. But overall, I bet they could have come up with something that would have pleased a large majority of viewers. What would it be?  Don't ask me.  They were the ones getting paid to write the show.

The risk of doing nothing is too great

"Boredom linked to health problems"

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Only The Beginning

In Mark Zuckerberg's recent commencement address at Harvard, he said:

...it's not enough to have purpose yourself. You have to create a sense of purpose for others.

Let me congratulate Mr. Zuckerberg on saying something interesting.  By interesting, I mean something--unlike most of the cliches you hear at such addresses--you can actually disagree with.

I won't go into a long discussion of how I feel about Zuckerberg's claim.  I'll just say that creating a sense of purpose for others is a questionable and potentially dangerous activity.

In fact, the statement--the thesis of his speech--though well-meaning, can sound more like a threat than a promise.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Comedy Is Hard

I watched the pilot of Showtime's I'm Dying Up Here last night. It's based on a well-done book about the world of stand-up comedy in 1970s Los Angeles, but the show itself is fictionalized.

It's a good concept with an appealing cast, but suffers from the same problems that ruined HBO's Vinyl, last year's expensive flop set in the exact same era but looking at the music industry.  Both shows should be fun, but all we seem to get is the misery of the people involved.

Sure, there's wisecracking and bits of routines*, but mostly it's people making big speeches and acting self-important about the world of comedy.  And for people who are supposed to be making others laugh, they mostly come across as joyless.

You can do a dramatic show about comedians.  But where's the sense of fun?  Just like Vinyl, you want to get involved in an exciting world, and all you get is despair (and whining).

And just like Vinyl, the pilot is built around a death.  Vinyl had a murder, while I'm Dying Up Here has a suicide.  One of the comedians who's "made it" walks in front of a bus.  And much of the rest of the show deals with the aftermath.

Not only is this a bad idea, it shows the producers don't have faith in their concept.  Just trying to make it in the world of comedy, if properly done, is plenty dramatic.  There's no need to trick things up with a death.  (And I'm aware that in the book the show is based on, there was a comic who took his life.  It's no excuse for bad drama to say it's inspired by a real situation.)

Look at classic shows like The Sopranos and The Wire.  They were about crime, violence and the basest human instincts, but they were fun to watch (and often funny).  I'm Dying Up Here is mostly depressing.  I'm not sure if I can bring myself to watch another episode.  (If you want to see a better show about making it stand-uip, check out HBO's Crashing, which debuted earlier this year.)

Meanwhile, I also watched the fifth episode of the revived Twin Peaks.  I wasn't actually looking forward to it.  I enjoyed the original show (especially at the beginning) but felt it had run its course.  But the new show is its own thing. It's not even Twin Peaks, exactly, as only a small portion of the action takes place there, and much of the cast is new as well.

All 18 episodes were written by the show's original creators, Mark Frost and David Lynch, and are all directed by Lynch.  So what we're getting is essentially an 18 hour, well-funded David Lynch movie.  Getting an hour a week of Lynchian weirdness is a blast.

*One Italian comic does a routine on the Carson show where he talks about how his mom would bring him a "bowl of pasta."  In 1973, pasta was an exotic word.  A comedian getting his first shot at the big time would have said "bowl of spaghetti."

Sunday, June 04, 2017

A Word From Wilder

I used to teach a course in screenwriting, believe it or not.  I'd try to take my class through the process, showing them what sort of thing works and what definitely doesn't. (More than anything, they wanted to know how to get an agent.)

The best advice is write--and rewrite--a lot, and see a lot of movies.  There are no guarantees, except that nothing will happen if you don't make an effort.

I recently came across this list by Billy Wilder, one of the greatest writers (and directors) Hollywood ever had.  I wish I had it then.  It would have saved me a lot of time:

Billy Wilder on screenwriting:

1.  The audience is fickle.

2.  Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go.

3.  Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

4.  Know where you're going.

5.  The more subtle and elegant you are hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

6.  If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is the first act.

7.  A tip from Lubitsch: let the audience add up two plus two.  They'll love you forever.

8.  In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees.  Add to what they're seeing.

9.  The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

10.  The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then--that's it.  Don't hang around.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

I Hear A Symphony

Sometimes, when I'm drifting off to sleep, I imagine music. Music of my own creation.  Sometimes it's even symphonic.  And it sounds pretty good.  Unfortunately, I never am able to remember it later.

So it's got me wondering.  When my brain is in that state, am I naturally more creative?  Or when my brain is in that state, are my critical faculties lower, so I convince myself something sounds better than it is?

A secondary, though perhaps bigger, question.  What is it I'm hearing?  What's going on in my brain while that music is playing?  How similar is it to hearing something from an actual outside source?  (Same questions for seeing something in your mind's eye.)

Friday, June 02, 2017

Do-Re-Mi

Don't ask me how, but I stumbled across this post: "Why Women Prefer Men With Money"

I had to read it to find the answer to this age-old question.  Apparently it's because with a rich guy you can afford to live a better life and do more things.

As author Christopher Lai concludes:

If a woman prefers her man to have money, it doesn't necessarily mean that she's a gold digger. It can simply mean that she wants to experience life with you.

Interesting distinction.

I think this was already answered best, in a negative way, by Bernadette Peters' character in The Jerk:

I don't care about losing all the money. It's losing all the stuff.

Let's play another round of 'Who's the Biggest Idiot?'

Fact checking:

"Allegheny County was won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the November election."

And why is that relevant?

"I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," the president said during his speech.

I can live with this logic. So, basically, Trump was not elected to represent California, Illinois, New York, Virginia and all the usual suspects.

Heck, what am I saying? He wasn't elected to represent blue counties.

Congratulations, LAGuy, there is no need for California or parts of it to secede. Mission accomplished, according to the Post Gazette. Works for me, works for America!

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Don't Shoot

Let me admit to some ignorance--I've never read The Three Musketeers.  But I've seen it on film.  Man have I seen it on film.  At least five versions.

So here's my question.  Where are the muskets?  For guys whose name is built around it, all they ever seem to do is fight with swords.

PS  It's called The Three Musketeers, but the main character is d'Artagnan, who joins the titular three (Athos, Porthos and Aramis, for those keeping score).

Wouldn't a better title be The Fourth Musketeer?

It may not seem like a big deal, but I once saw a guy lose a lot of money on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire because of this confusion.

web page hit counter