Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Movies Can't Play Ball with the Babe

My apologies for the week-long delay at writing this blog. I've been way too involved with the start of baseball season;  in my other life, I am a huge, self-confessed baseball geek, even though the teams I follow normally are as low-lying as the opened Bazooka wrappers on the floors of the team dugouts.

So to commemorate my return to pop-culture blogging, I thought I'd talk about the biggest baseball star of all time: Babe Ruth. One of the most colorful, charismatic baseball players of any era, his prodigious personality helped save baseball in the 1920s as much as did his powerful home runs. He ushered in the modern game and got baseball out of the more-plodding deadball era.

But why movies can't capture that magic is a total mystery. But there have been two laughable attempts, both of which sanitize the Babe and keep the real story hidden behind the curtains of fame.

The Babe Ruth Story (1948)

This is the gold standard of bad baseball movies, one that review site Rotten Tomatoes calls "The Plan 9 of Outer Space" of baseball movies, so christened because it rivals one of the most-watchable worst films of all time. In this case, there is comic gold in all the inaccuracies at work here. Let us name a few of them:

The Babe (played by William Bendix) is a lovable galoot with a supportive wife and a mentor who never ages a day between 1914 and 1948. It is never mentioned that the meek wife is the product of Babe's second marriage, after he left Wife #1 and his daughter behind to marry his showgirl lover. This ultra-glowing biopic is full of too many flaws to name: Among the most egregious is the depiction of the Ballantine Beer sign at Yankee Stadium --- during the Prohibition era, when alcohol was outlawed.

And then you have the inspiring finale, when the Babe tells a sick kid in the hospital that he will hit a home run for him that day in the 1932 World Series. The maudlin story actually took flight in 1927, five years before.

Here's a cornball scene of the Babe calling his famed home run shot in another World Series game:

The Babe (1992)

This newer remake of the Babe Ruth story stars John Goodman, who at least looks more the portly part than does William Bendix (although in the clip below, it is evident that the real Babe was a lot more fit than fat).

But the movie again turns The Babe into a demigod, including his promise to poor, sick "Little Johnny" that he would hit a home run for him. Curiously, all the ballparks depicted in the movie except for Fenway Park are actually shots of Chicago's Wrigley Field, which any passing baseball fan would recognize. And one scene even shows "the basket" in Wrigley's outfield, a screen to catch balls and avoid fan interference. The screen was installed in 1970, only 22 years after the Babe's death.

The movie itself is also full of Ruthian-sized factual errors. While still with the Red Sox, the Babe is told to "Get those Yankees," even though the Yankees were a bottom-feeding team until his arrival there and not competitive with the first-division Sox. He is shown pitching sidearm instead of overhand and hitting a home run in his first at-bat, a fictional play on the facts. And in one season, Ruth and teammate "Jumpin" Joe Dugan are shown, with the third basemen revealing that he has gotten his nickname by jumping to whatever teammate pays him to do so.

In fact, Dugan's nickname came from the fact that he'd consistently jump to a new team for a higher paycheck.

Speedy (1928)

Finally, a Babe Ruth movie with good acting, intentional humor and a compelling plot. And this one features the Babe himself, in a scene from a Harold Lloyd silent film comedy made in 1928. It shows that the Babe could hold his own against the weaker attempts that only diminish the larger-than-life legend.

In this film (clip below), the Babe is again the object of adoring fans, signing autographs while suddenly realizing that he is late for a game at Yankee Stadium. The bespeckled Lloyd plays a cabbie whom the Babe signals to take him pronto to the stadium. The Babe's good-naturedness is tested as Lloyd pays more attention to lavishing fan adulation on Ruth ("you've done more for baseball than cheese has done for Switzerland," Lloyd tells him) than in his driving. As he weaves and bobs through teeming New York traffic, Ruth shows his irritation visibly; he wouldn't be as upset by a strikeout in the ninth. The scene ends with Lloyd finally reaching the stadium and the Bambino telling him "I'll call you if I decide to commit suicide."

What a lovable guy, that Babe. Why a movie can't render the colorful real man from the oafish myth is as mysterious to movie lovers as Justin Verlander's fastball is to hitters.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Goodreads Goes with Goliath

There have been, by some count, more than 1,000 blog and article posts on's purchase this week of Goodreads -- and many of them were less than positive. In the perceived, wild-and-wooly world of the Internet, it was like the rebellious youth who cut his hair, put on a tie and went into investment banking.

And while the money might have been so good that the rebel could switch from mac-and-cheese to marzipan-filled sea bass for dinner, everyone whispered that he somehow lost his soul along the way. He had not only sold out but had become one of fthe numberless minions who no longer has any opinions to express or differences to air.
Readers hope Goodreads isn't done in by Amazon.

OK, enough with the labored analogies (I can hear the groans in cyberspace). Let me say that I'm having trouble seeing what all the fuss is about. Goodreads fits Amazon; its corporate mission follows that of its Mothra-like, new parent company. In the digital age of publishing, both Amazon and Goodreads get it: the consumer voice drives business, and the more voices that can carry the company, the better.

For a brief recap (and anyone can read more by a quick glance at the Internet stories), Goodreads was an insolent startup from a man named Otis Chandler that had no grand desire to change the world. All he really wanted to do was to publish reader opinions on books they enjoyed, offering their reviews and tipping off other book-obsessed consumers on what to read. It is a fandome site but one that also allows the most in-depth of reviews to be shared and handled by many. On Goodreads, the readers become the critics, and there is a sense of empowerment in that.

Amazon, in my view, will not be changing that focus. There is a lot of hand-wringing over the purportedly high-eight-figure price that Chandler received and the fact that Goodreads is now part of the digital delivery machine that is Amazon. And that is true. But also consider how Amazon has gathered its own strength, first as a bookseller and now as a consumer magnet for all things entertaining that can be materially bought.

Amazon is more than a portal for sales; founder Jeff Bezos has avoided the same trap that has led to the deaths of many other Internet properties. Its strength also lies in its many product reviews -- both from professional and amateur sources. It offers suggestions for other products, and it delivers a vehicle for the sharing of information that also leads to informed consumers. People forget that when discussing Amazon's net worth.

Goodreads fits the same model, one that any 21st century business should also follow. Today, it is not only significant to listen to the consumer but give that consumer a megaphone to voice its views. Every large consumer products company worth its salt has its own blog for consumer response. And anyone looking to buy anything, be it books or Buicks, can go to numerous consumer sites for information. And we should all say "hallelujah" for that.

Yes, Goodreads now becomes part of large corporate America and sheds its cloak as the rebellious upstart. But isn't that part of growing up, in this case? Goodreads isn't joining the soul-killing investment bank but the company offering the most diverse platform for new voices on the street.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Phil Spector's True-Life Fiction

I've always been haunted by the pure morbidness in the death of Sid Vicious, the blasted-out-of-his-mind former guitarist with the Sex Pistols. Sure, he was a strange character -- even for a punk rock icon of late 1970s England, where thumbing your nose at society meant safety pins in your cheek and a crash course in drugs and self-immolation. Yet, the Sex Pistols were utterly without equal in their tirades about a fascist Queen of England and having no future.

But the cartoonishly strung-out rock star soon became a poster child for the fatalism of early punk rock. Soon after the demise of the Pistols, Vicious and girlfriends/group manager Nancy Spungen, engaged in a mind-boggling spree of drugs in the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan, a rock star paradise that had once been Andy Warhol-glamorous but was now cockroach-crawling seediness. Nancy was found dead of a stab wound in the fall of 1978. Vicious, accused of her murder, died soon after of a heroin overdose, supposedly carrying out a suicide pact. And so sprung the popular movie, "Sid and Nancy" and other docudramas on the sordid event, bringing the nightmare to popular imagination.
A wigged-out Al Pacino

This story is only a prelude to a short discussion of a new HBO film, "Phil Spector," written by playwright David Mamet and launched March 24. Spector, the famed music producer ("Spanish Harlem," Da Doo Ron Ron," "He's a Rebel," many more), has his own weird side; he was -- and apparently still is - a raging egomaniac and ranting madman, a lover of high-topped wigs that belong in the Smithsonian, and a curator of big guns. The latter got him in hot water in 2003, when Spector was accused of killing actress Lana Clarkson after a date. Clarkson apparently either put a gun in her mouth or was forced to do so by Spector (who had once been accused by ex-wife Ronnie of the Ronettes of abuse in their marriage). A trigger was pulled, a gruesome death ensued.

And a movie was born. But this time, it's a bit different. Mamet, the famous writer, says this is a fictional story, not a true account of Spector's life and murder conviction; it is a made-up movie that eventually argues that, while Spector is as flamboyant as Liberace (the subject of another upcoming movie) and could be considered a dangerous personality like John Dillinger, he didn't kill anyone. His film has the great actress Helen Mirren arguing for the defense, while playing a lawyer convinced of his innocence. And the movie has the gall to cast Al Pacino as the potential lunatic that is Spector, in a performance befitting his gift of inhabiting characters that the audience can't keep its eyes off even as we know he is pulling off a great job of hammy overemoting.

With Pacino and Mirren behind this movie, I'm sure the ratings will be huge. But many will see this as just another reality-based docudrama that shows that a strange celebrity can be perceived wrongly by the public. Check out actor Robert Blake's years of talk-show arguments on his innocence in the death of his ex-wife, while appearing as an aggressive doberman. We assume our weird celebrities are engaged in possible wrongdoing; how could we know they are really like us.

But have we blurred the line between reality and fiction? Does it really matter if Spector is guilty or innocent? That's not really the point anymore; we'd rather just see our celebrities naked, foaming at the mouth and made for TV. Even Sid Vicious is considered just a carnival experience at the movies, as we forget the original vitality of the art.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Dark Nights in Chinatown

I'm spending a few days on business in San Francisco, which explains the brief lull in my blog. Having dinner tonight in Chinatown gave me a thought -- while tourists to both New York and San Francisco flock to Chinatown, the movies have not already been as kind to this hangout spot.

And after having spent a night there, I can see the movie's fascination with Chinatown's dark side. After sitting at a Chinatown restaurant bar watching a TV tuned to March Madness, my night was made no more exciting by walking the mostly deserted streets afterwards. The worn, neon signs were half-lit, the shuttered gift shops offered menancing Buddhas and toothy dragons in ceramic, the dingy apartments overlooking the gift shops advertised no invitation to glamorous city living. Resonant was the last line from Roman Polanski's classic, "Chinatown," where Jack Nicholson has found his future mainly ruined by the corruption of the place: "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."

Other movies have shared the ominous nature of the place, at least as filmmakers attempting to portray the dark side of humanity have chosen to show it. Stay far, far away from the Chinatown of the movies. For this example, we won't discriminate between the Chinatown of New York and San Francisco. Some examples:

Blade Runner (1991)

Harrison Ford takes a drink at a future-set but somehow-familiar Chinatown bar, a placid place with a phone that he uses. But outside, the Mayhem guy from the Alstate commercials seems to have struck again. And you can't call your insurance broker to resolve this apocolyptic catastrophe: acid rain falls, buildings have caught on fire, half-maimed people -- and Androids -- roam the streets. And you can't get a good order of peking duck anywhere.

Year of the Dragon (1985)

Mickey Roarke -- before he turned into a pock-marked wreck -- was once a flawed action hero, kids. In this Michael Cimino film criticized at the time for its racially questionable depiction of Asian-Americans, Roarke plays a cop with a grudge against Asian people after returning from Vietnam. His character battles a Chinese drug lord who loves violence, and most of the Asians in this film are treated as equally sketchy. An ultra-bloody thriller that's about as pointed as an acupuncture needle in its negative depiction of the Asian community.

Freaky Friday (2003)

OK, this identity-swap film with Lindsay Lohan (later, a young female version of Mickey Roarke) and Jamie Lee Curtis isn't exactly a forbidding film. But not so fast: Let's not forget the pivotal scene in the Chinatown restaurant, where a skulking Lohan and her perfectionist mother Curtis argue. This causes the mother of the restaurant proprietor to cast a spell on the pair so that they switch identities and learn to understand each other. She then forgets how to reverse the curse, causing that Mayhem guy to come out again, but leading to a mushy understanding of what makes each other tick and big hugs by movie's end. Yet, can we forego more Asian stereotypes, this time of the pigeon-Englished Chinese who can somehow bestow spells. The movie depiction of Asian women is about as dated in this film as a Charlie Chan serial.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Are We Tired of Remakes Yet?

Are we running out of new ideas? Does everything these days have to be a retread?

The hottest rock albums in the month of March are coming from the likes of Bon Jovi, Eric Clapton and Dave Grohl (and we won't mention Bowie and his planet-trippinge but critically acclaimed new album). Over on the Indie charts, we've hearing Nick Cave and former Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr. The Zombies (of the mid-60s screed "She's Not There") just played Austin's legendary, hipsterish South by Southwest festival. 

Veronica Mars wins the lottery.
On TV, nothing seems to fade away, especially low-rated or ancient shows that have a cult following. "Arrested Development" will return for a season on Netflix. Sony Pictures is turning "Good Times" into a feature film -- does that mean we also get the return of Jimmy Walker? Dy-no-mite! Both J.R. Ewing and Larry Hagman recently departed "Dallas" (one was shot for a second time, the other had a shot liver), but "Dallas" seemingly lives forever on TNT.

And now we hear that creator Rob Thomas has launched an Internet campaign to make a feature film from his ratings-challenged but adored series, "Veronica Mars," the teen-detective drama that launched Kristen Bell to popular consciousness. Using the crowdsourcing Web site Kickstarter, Thomas raised $3.3 million from fans of the cult darling. A movie is in the works for 2014, with video on demand likely to follow.

Some are heralding the campaign as a start of a revolutionary funding technique. Here are the ingredients -- get the star and producer of a popular but long-departed TV show to agree to participate (both Bell and Thomas are commited to "Veronica Mars," the movie). Post something about it on one of those mushrooming crowdsourcing sites that allows regular people the opportunity to invest in something they adore. And watch the mega-millions lottery ticket come in a winner.

So, does that mean we'll soon see other creaky TV shows go for the same juice? "Bewitched" has already been done as a 2005 flop, even with Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman. Does anyone remember the "Get Smart" movie in 2007? Who holds a flame for the  "Charlie's Angel" movies versus the original series? You may love Cameron Diaz but she's no Farrah Fawcett.

"21 Jump Street" worked but only as a turn-the-plot-on-its head, Twister Game of a comedy that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original. For the few who may remember, "The Brady Bunch Movie" and "Addams Family Values" worked by being similarly jaded.

What we're saying is that there are no guarantees that getting a bunch of people with money to burn to spend it to see their sweet but long-gone TV show rise from the dead is the right idea. If "Veronica Mars" flops, no one will be ringing Kristen's bell to see the sequel. Investing in a good idea is a bold move but here's a thought: How about something fresh off the shelves, not a piece of moldy bread. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Starman Returns

The unsettling cover for the new David Bowie album
On first listen to David Bowie's dense but danceable new album, "The Next Day," one gets the impression that he never left. The 66-year-old has not released an album in a decade, since 2003's "Reality," and was rumored to be seriously ill. Instead, he has returned to the big stage as inscrutable but as hook-filled as ever. There are even rumors that Bowie is considering a tour later this year.

The album itself can be likened to the latest musical opus from another iconic geezer, Bob Dylan, and his great "Tempest" album in 2012. Both eloquent, lyrical albums demand repeated listening and are not made for an age where we flip through Pandora or Rdio in a constant quest for a breezy musical mash-up. Like many of these artists' past catalogs in their half-century of entertainment, you have to listen hard and listen seriously to what these albums have to say. They are challenging, to say the least.
 Bowie's voice may have thickened with age, but this still is the artist with the mysterious persona, famous for changing his public identity album-by-album (the intrepid stargazer of "Space Oddity," Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, his obsession with Berlin minimalism, the glam Diamond Dog, his blue-eyed soul of "Let's Dance," electronica master with Brian Eno). The man who fell to earth, born Davy Jones, likes to keep things interesting for himself, and that's usually the case for the listener too.

Bowie's latest offers a bit of that shape-shifting, but this time it's littered through various tracks. The album cover offers the first mystery: It is the cover from his "Heroes" album, but it has an intrusive rectangular box plastered in the center with the new album's name. And like the track "Heroes," one of Bowie's most enduring songs, this album does offer some soaring beats. But instead of the fist-pumping lyricism of that song, we get a bit more inscrutability track by track on this album.

Bowie has professed his recent fascination with medieval history, and the title track has references to that, even. There is the subtle, potential allusion that this IS the "next day" that the heroes in "Heroes" have been searching for. Other songs are more concrete: "Valentine's Day" may be bouncy in beat, but it talks of a teenage gunman at a high school who's "got something to say." His song "You Feel So Lonely You Could Die" references alienated youth with a doo-wop harmony and features a drum line from the song "Five Years," in his Ziggy Stardust period. "I'd Rather Be High" talks of a returning war veteran who'd rather be in an altered state with his soldier mates. "(You Will) Set the World on Fire" references 1960s folk legend Dave Van Ronk and a made-up meeting with Bobby Kennedy.

That's the most tangible of tracks. The rest of extremely hooky and rousing, with urgent drum beats and Bowie's normal vocal melodrama. But the themes are a bit hard to pin down. There is a certain undercurrent of disconnection, of wasted years, of a society out of tune with its own rhythms and of a certain fate that pulls one forward even when we don't know what is to come. There is both existential dread about the future and a certain hope that we all find what we're looking for. This is no "Golden Years" but restlessness, covered by an unnamed wistfulness for something we cannot really understand.

Even the insistently rocking first single, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," is vague in its meaning; the stars seem to be tormenting Bowie. In a video with actress Tilda Swinton and two androgynous models, the stars on TV and in music seem to be taking over a couple's staid life. The stars are jealous but they may live forever, according to the lyrics. But what does that mean? What vague, unseen, metaphysical being is threatening us? We aren't certain.

Yet, the music is extremely compelling, and the album is addictive. Especially compared to some of Bowie's efforts in the last 20 years, it is both accessible and enigmatic. And it speaks to a truth: The geezers can still rock, even if they refuse to bow to the simpler listening habits of today. After all, Dylan's album offers an 11-minute essay on the sinking of the Titanic. Try doing the "Harlem Shake" to that one.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bad Luck of the Irish (Filmmaker)

Since it is St. Patrick's Day, I thought I'd veer off course from my normally serious vivisection of the pop culture landscape to talk about Irish-themed entertainment. And by entertainment, I don't mean the usual list of best Irish movies -- there are plenty of lists out there on the blogosphere that give the topic the shamrocks it deserves. We could talk all day about "My Left Foot" or "The Crying Game" or even the John Wayne classic "The Quiet Man."

But everyone else talks about them too. What makes this list more interesting, especially to a crowd that might be too pickled in green beer this weekend to really care, is to list a bit of the off-the-wall blarney that movies with Irish characters have produced. The filmmakers had to have been imbibing in more than a touch of the Irish whiskey to have considered making some of these classic howlers.

Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Sean Connery (who is actually Scottish) sings! In this 1959, lesser-known Walt Disney film, Connery and bunch of "wee people" dressed as leprechauns spice up this nonsensical Irish folk tale. While few remember the plot of this convoluted story, it features a famous fiddling scene  that goes on forever, with small actors who have appeared to have dipped too often into the apple gin.  Rotten Tomatoes features one review at the time that stated "I have to admit that by the second or third time I saw leprechauns depicted as magical by speeding up the film, I was hoping for someone to show up with a gun."

Far And Away

Tom Cruise and then-wife Nicole Kidman show why their union was fated to fail: bad acting in films done together -- OK, maybe "Eyes Wide Shut" had its voyeuristic thrills, but "Days of Thunder" was also a bit of a car wreck. This 1992 epic about an Irish couple wandering the Wild West in the 1880s has no reason to exist, other that bad Irish accents right out of the Lucky Charms cereal box and constant squabbling. It also has some great movie quotes, including this gem from Cruise: “You're a corker, Shannon. What a corker you are.”

Mary Reilly


In perhaps Julia Roberts worst film role, she plays an Irish washerwoman who has a love affair with the wrong man: the dashing Dr. Jekyll. She must not have read any Robert Louis Stevenson or she'd know him as Mr. Hyde by night. Reportedly, our dearest Julia hired a voice coach to help her with the lilts and cadences of an Irish accent. It didn't work, and the movie was as dead on arrival as Hyde's victims. Critic Susan Stark wrote in the Detroit News: "Unfortunately, your response to the bizarre story of terror and lust that dare not speak their name is pretty well limited to Roberts' response -- which is, in turn, limited by her technique." She should have known better than to date a disturbed John Malkovich in this film.


The Jackal

I love Richard Gere as much as Julia Roberts, but here's a movie he'd like to bury underneath the nearest Irish meadow. The Philly-born actor plays an Irish terrorist as a stereotypically violent bad Irish bloke (with another horrible accent). What's really surprising about this 1997 dud is the lengths that many involved go about distancing themselves from it. Gere, a devout Buddhist, said he regrets making such a bloody film. Fred Zinnemann, who directed the great 1973 thriller "Day of the Jackal," on which the movie is loosely based, fought with the studio to have the new film carry a different title. And "Day of the Jackal" novelist Frederick Forsyth wanted his name removed from the credits. All for a movie that few saw anyway.

Check out Bruce Willis in a platinum blonde wig in this movie clip.

Finian's Rainbow

This smash Broadway hit was turned into a film in 1969, becoming Fred Astaire's last musical and notable for its misguided direction by future "The Godfather" major domo Francis Ford Coppola. But while the movie wasn't considered half-bad when it came out, today it would elicit dropping jaws for its racist subtext. Astaire plays an Irishman carrying a stolen crock of gold who is being chased by both a leprechaun wanting it back and by a racist Southern senator, played by Keenan Wynn.  In a scene that never would be filmed today, the leprachaun turns the senator into a black man to teach him a lesson. There is even a scene where one of the senator's associates tells a black botanist how to act more "Negro." Jaw-dropping might not be a strong enough word for this. Unbelievable and intolerable might be better used.