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.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Clint Eastwood's Morality Check

In this age of media oversaturation, we sometimes hear that we've become jaded about the future. It is reflected in our choices of popular culture. As teenagers, we play bang-'em-up, shoot-'em-up video games. We tune to mass entertainment that is geared to a high body count (stand tall, "Walking Dead") or procedural of the week (the alphabet soup shows like "NCIS" and "CSI"), or the reality genre that allows us to laugh at the misfortunes or idiosyncracies of others.

But looking back at movies made more than a quarter century ago, we have nothing on jadedness. Many of those films cast a dark, cynical eye on society. Today, we may watch historical movies about the political battle to free the slaves in "Lincoln" or the subterfuge surrounding helping hostages escape Iran through a fake movie production in "Argo."  But these are not really commentaries on modern society.

I happened to see one of Clint Eastwood's early films, 1968's "Hang 'em High." At the time, Eastwood was primarily known as a leading actor in Italian director Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, usually playing a man with no name who is pretty good at shooting a gun. But he decided to start his own production company and take his reductionist take on the action hero to America. The result was one of the top-selling movies of 1968, "Hang 'em High," directed by Ted Post and starring Clint as another mysterious stranger who takes revenge into his own hands.

But here's where the story takes a novel twist. In this movie, Eastwood's character, Jed Cooper, is almost lynched by a gang of outlaws and features a rope burn stretching across his neck, which he discreetly covers with his high-collared, starched black shirts and black T's. Eastwood is of course gunning for revenge on those who have wronged him.

But he runs into a judge in Oklahoma, at the time the territory wants to become a state. To impress the federal authorities, Judge Fenton (played by Pat Hingle), who runs the territory, must convince the government that the open spaces of Oklahoma are also safe for its citizens and free of untamed criminals. He enlists the edgy Eastwood as a deputy marshall and tells him he is free to track down those seven outlaws who have done his wrong.

There is one condition: Eastwood must bring them to Judge Fenton alive and not go on a killing spree. Eastwood tries and sometimes succeeds, killing a few when they turn their guns on him but finally bringing to Fenton several of the outlaws, including a rustler/murderer played by Bruce Dern with anger coming out his pores.

Fenton turns the tables and hangs Dern and several others, some for the simplest of crimes. It turns out that he wants to impress the federal authorities that Oklahoma will be a law-abiding state where criminals will fear death at every turn. In a key scene, Fenton tells Eastwood's Copper that if it weren't for his hangings, lynch mobs would roam the streets. It is better for the law, like Fenton's hanging judge, to dispense Western justice than for mob rule to enforce its own misguided judgment.

Eastwood remains conflicted, even at the movie's end. He wants his revenge, but he also wants to see justice served. The moral conundrum is not neatly resolved, even as it raises questions about capital punishment and the machinations by politicians at the expense of some citizens.

This is a tale set in the Old West but it is a vision that is still debated today. In the late 1960s, with the Vietnam War outraging many citizens and protests sprouting like the peace signs seen everywhere, the movies mirrored that turbulent time. Of course, Eastwood's conservative politics today are well-known; he's the guy who talked to the chair at the Republican convention.

But in 1968, one could make a case that even Eastwood seemed a bit undecided in his politics. His first self-produced film, one that helped propel his career to superstardom, is also one that can spark heated political debate.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Bringing Out the Dark Side

I took a blog day off on Monday for my daughter's 17th birthday. And that triggered another topic for tonight's posting. Two of the actresses who helped shape my daughter's formative years, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, have a new movie out in wide release March 22 that  she wants to see: "Spring Breakers."

The stars of "Spring Breakers."
This isn't your tween Disney movie we're talking about here. The formerly saccharine starlets want to show they are adults now. This R-rated tale is more of a good-girls-gone-bad telenovela, as the former "Witches of Waverly Place" and High School Musical" vixens now play girls corrupted and compromised by Trouble with a capital T during spring break by "the wrong man," played by James Franco (and I really hate mentioning Franco in two blogs in a row). There apparently is drugs, there is drinking, there is sex (or at least the implied version), and there is a lot of bad mojo going down in Florida.

They are in a film directed by Harmony Korine, known for his obtuse stream of consciousness, dark humor and desire to capture the absurd. He is the writer of "Kids," the NC-17-rated, 1995 cult film that was tut-tutted by critics for depicting the decline of youth and the bizarreness of the world. His film, "Julien Donkey-Boy," shows the world through the eyes of a man suffering from schizophrenia, while the cult film "Gummo" abstractly shows a tornado ripping through Xenia, Ohio, while focusing on a strange youth who tapes a piece of bacon to his bathroom wall.

Gomez and Hudgens are following the path of other teen actors attempting to shed their goody-two-shoes image to become grown ups in Hollywood. It has worked out just fine for Leonardo Dicaprio, Johnny Depp, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Wahlberg and many more. I'm having trouble coming up with female actors who have done the same -- maybe Scarlett Johansson in some films. Emma Watson is trying to break free of Pottermania with her recent roles, including a coming film about vapid teen bank robbers in L.A., called "The Bling Ring." Watson is said to have recently turned down a part in a "Cinderella" remake as she looks for mature parts.

You can't blame Gomez and Hudgens for following that path (and Hudgens' career hasn't been exactly stellar, post-Musical). And some say "Spring Breakers" is no teen-boy fever dream; it actually is a bit of a morality tale amid the underground steam punk vibe. But it's almost laughable the lengths that these two have cast off their Disney togas. Gomez said in a recent interview that she wants to escape the Disney "machine," while Hudgins had said this is a way for young actresses to find their footing while taking baby steps away from their Teen Vogue image.

Even the movie poster is provocative, hinting at bad behavior with the tag line, "A Little Sun Can Bring Out Your Dark Side."

My daughter may still be in a semi-innocent stage but she's already said she doesn't want to miss this film. Should I be worried? If it's done right, I suppose a little edge can't hurt today's youth.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Weak and Powerless Oz

It's not up to me to take the new CG-effects-laden "Oz the Great and Powerful" to task. I'm not the target audience for this visually glossy Oz update. It did take in an estimated $150 million in its opening weekend from March 8-10, making it at least marginally a hit for Disney Studios and the top movie of the weekend.

Mrs. Gulch harasses Dorothy and Auntie Em.
But Disney has to be watching the box office closely. With its luxury-class digital effects and encyclopedia-heavy marketing budget, the film is said to have cost more than $350 million to make. It has a long way to go to reach the $1 billion in sales stature of another fairy-tale update, "Alice in Wonderland." At least it's no "Jack the Giant Slayer," a dead-on-arrival action sprawl that has only reaped $43.5 million in box office after having cost about $200 million for Warner Bros. We'd call it "Jack the Studio Killer" if Warner didn't have such deep pockets.

But one side note on "Oz" mentioned by critics is its lack of story; it's all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Don't blame James Franco, who reportedly does a passionless walk-through. It's more the fault of having not much to work with outside of the splash-mountain pastiche of colorful set pieces.

It's important to remember that the original 1939 "Wizard of Oz" was more than a fairy tale romp. It came out during the heart of the Great Depression, and much of its imagery centered on the hard times endured by farm families in the dust bowl. The Kansas scenes are shot in harsh black and white and show Dorothy's family living at subsistence level. Mrs. Gulch, the snooty landowner and movie villain early on, is a heartless landowner whose main purpose seems to be to get Dorothy "and your little dog too."

Once Dorothy accidentally kills the evil witch and sets the Munchkins free, she is a kind of humble savior. The vivid technicolor scenes in the land of Oz are part of her journey away from her chores and hard living. But it is telling that all she wants to do is go home; her life may be hard, but her family is also her life.

While no Steinbeckian drama like "Grapes of Wrath," the original movie "Oz" was more rooted in a parable of escape and individual achievement than the modern "Oz." A studio does not generally spend north of $200 million to remind us of today's modern economic woes. Leave that to the cheaper indies. But do adult audiences really want to see pure fantasy without at least some underpinnings of reality? Just asking....

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Father's Son

At least where I live, sushi restaurants are about as prevalent as gasoline stations. You can fill up on sculpted spheres of raw fish and rice not only at neighborhood sushi restaurants but at your local supermarket, convenience store and, yes, even at some of those places where you fill up on gas. While the quality of the sushi may not always be top-notch -- some of it can be as dry as the Sahara and about as tasty as sand clots -- there is strength in quantity.

That alone makes the 2011 documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" of a certain poignance. The 2011 film, now out on video and on many streaming devices, tells the tale of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old master sushi chef, or shokunin, who works from a 10-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station. From his humble surroundings, you would never know that Jiro is considered possibly the best at his trade in the world, garnering a coveted three-star rating from the Michelin guide (and there are no four stars).

The documentary itself is more than just a paeon to the art of creating the world's best sushi. It also looks at the world from Jiro's perspective; the still-vital sushi technician in David Gelb's documentary is frequently in the center of the screen talking to the camera about his life philosophy.

And in some ways his success story is alarming to Western eyes. He eschews the idea of business collaboration or in attempting to appeal to mass consumer tastes. Instead, he talks of being a leader, of finding your own passion, of doing whatever makes you happy and not worrying about money. He is an eccentric, an iconoclast. He even offers some parental advice, stating that it is "stupid" to tell children you will support them if they fail. It is better to have them find their own way in the world and use their own wiles, or else they become too soft and too accustomed to failure, he says.

But the documentary's biggest staying power comes from the passing of Jiro's legacy to his eldest son, Yoshikazu. As a noted Japanese food critic remarks in the film, once Jiro is no longer able to run his restaurant, he may lose his clientele. Even if Jiro's son makes sushi as well as he does, there will always be the perception that Jiro is the master and Yoshikazu only the apprentice. Yoshikazu will have to be twice as good as Jiro to succeed, not a small task.

The irony is that Yoshikazu, now 50, has worked his entire adult life under his father's guidance. He is the master behind the master, buying the fresh fish each day at the market, ensuring that it is cut, cooked and shaped to perfection, and performing 95% of the duties. Still, as the movie makes clear, it is all about pleasing Jiro -- the doting father -- that drives the business.

And, make no mistake, the business is difficult. Jiro, a workaholic, espouses the idea that one should do the same routine every day in life and be prepared to learn and work extremely hard. There is great sweat equity behind the making of sushi. I'll never look at a piece of raw tuna the same way again.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Permanence of the Meta

Our hyper-sensitive, ultra-aware moviegoing public likes to be considered "meta," a term referring to the need to be in on the joke that is the fiction of a film. In a meta-movie, the viewer shares with the filmmaker any references to past movies and understand the visual or verbal asides that are made to other works of art, sometimes even those of other movies made by the same filmmaker.

Kevin Spacey's character loves to talk to the audience.
It is a burgeoning business, this act of meta-moviemaking. Horror movie directors particularly love this riff, dating back to Wes Craven and "Scream," where Craven both spoofed horror films and made a thriller of his own. Last year, "Cabin in the Woods," co-written by Joss Whedon of "Buffy" fame, used that trope, as did Tim Burton in his stop-action homily to horror, "Frankenweenie."

But the act of meta-fiction also includes that of talking directly to the audience, a device not used as often as the sardonic spoofing of past movies. In movie parlance, it is considered "breaking the fourth wall" that exists between viewer and actor. It has been the talk of the Netflix series "House of Cards," where Kevin Spacey consistently turns directly to eyeball the audience and proffer his innermost thoughts.

In one scene in episode three of the 13-part series, his congressman character is giving a sermon at his South Carolina church, while attempting to speak to the parents of a girl who recently died in a car accident and are in attendance at the service. The oily politician's true motives are to dissuade the parents from filing a negligent death lawsuit against him (the details aren't important here). Spacey's character uses the pulpit to empathize with the family and mention how grieved he was at his own father's death at age 42.

But shockingly, Spacey turns to the audience to tell us what a benighted wastrel his father really was, how he was no help to his family and virtually deserved his early death. It is as sharp a contrast to his unctuous sermon as is found in a modern movie.

The process of "breaking the fourth wall" is as old as Elizabethan England, where the theater stage fit on three walls with a proscenium arch as the fourth wall separating cast from audience. In the 19th century, talking to the audience was used liberally in France's theater of the real, and the phrase was coined by critic Denis Diderot.

In movies as different as "Fight Club," "Annie Hall" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," the meta-device has led to classic moments. It is alive today, sort of the opposite of a sequestered Congress is to tax reform (totally dead).

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

William and Marilyn

I happened to come across a quote that one of my daughter's teenage friends happened to post on Facebook. While teenagers pilfer, corral and otherwise re-parcel quotes from everywhere in cyberspace to fill their status boxes on this social media powerhouse, this one seemed especially poignant. It read:

"The nicest thing for me is sleep. Then at least I can dream."

The quote is extremely sad in and of itself; it expresses the unstated reality that we cannot dream unless we are in the passive state of somnambulance, that life itself has too many intrusions, obstacles, disappointments and setbacks to allow time to dream. When you find out that the author of this quote is one of the more tragic figures in 1950s Hollywood, it becomes even sadder. This quote about impossible waking dreams comes from Marilyn Monroe.

I tried to find where this quote came from, but I mainly stumbled upon its use as a banner ad to advertise all things Marilyn and her lonely life. I found wall art sayings on Amazon -- one measuring 22 X 11 and in black vinyl. I found ghostly YouTube shrines galore to Marilyn, with the quote pasted on black screens before a cornucopia of images of Marilyn in all her loveliness and those of her sudden demise.

And, yes, it leads off every website of famous quotes from our wax-sculpted blonde bombshell, just before other quoted remarks from Marilyn exclaiming how important it for families to tell their daughters how pretty they are or about how "respect is one of life's greatest treasures" or how "well-behaved women rarely make make history."

But this quote about the absence of dreams in life seems to be in an unsettling category unlike others. If you did not know they came from Marilyn, you'd think they were from an angry, bitter, resentful person who had not in the least fulfilled dreams or even exalted in fantasies. That they came from arguably the Hollywood legend we most like to put on our pedestals today offers its own form of jarring dissonance.

It may be kin to Shakespeare's famoust soliliquoy from "Hamlet":  "To sleep, perchance to dream - ay, there's the rub." In that verse, Hamlet is considering suicide after learning that his uncle, Claudius, killed his father, but he wonders whether taking his own death will offer an escape from his mental anguish or give him the peace he needs. The ghost of his late father, the late king of Denmark, haunts him. But in his impassioned soliliquoy, Hamlet realizes that revenge is the best antidote, because the sleep of death dashes any dreams, for "for what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil."

Maybe Marilyn saw "Hamlet" before uttering her famous words that are now memorialized as evidence of this starlet's unhappiness, as we continue to glean life lessons from her passing 50 years ago last August. Or maybe she had a fit of rage that led to this observation, as many believe her death was by accidental overdose and not suicide. Who knows. But to think that Marilyn Monroe and William Shakespeare share a link is interesting enough. Madness may have entered the house of both Hamlet and America's favorite transcendent sex symbol.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Crowdsourcing and the Music Service

Working out of the house has its advantages; one of those is the opportunity to put on some great music while I'm working (shhh, don't tell my bosses).

Introducing The Foals
I happen to prefer listening to Rhapsody's music service, which offers a carte blanche plan that allows me to select (upload? click on? connect with? call it what you will in our digital age) any music in any genre. It's a music store for the mind, which is more poignant considering that real, physical music stores are about as plentiful these days as candy cigarettes are for kids.

Maybe it's a topic for another day, but I like the fact that Rhapsody has professionally selected playlists culled by its music experts; it features such academic playlist featurettes as Swedish house goth, Black Power music, the greatest hits of the "Night Slugs" music label, the best of the Boy Bands (featuring a nod to Aventura and Mindless Behavior, whomever they are) and the "Harlem Shakes" world takeover singles. OK, maybe the last one isn't so thrilling.

Even its offbeat nature beats the fandom-based and record-label-based playlists on some other music services, like the emerging competitors at Spotify and Rdio. They offer a musical form of crowdsourcing, where your friends and neighbors worldwide determine the best songs that you, dear listener, should be tuning in to right now to stay hip, cool and in with the in crowd. The playlists they advertise prominently come from the favs of other, you-know "real people," not the music intelligentsia. Sure, they also offer apps from Rolling Stone, various English music rags, and others. Yet, a vast majority of its staying power is the music that the masses has selected. And, more horrifying to me, many of these apps on Spotify come from big music labels trying to sell their band brands.

There's nothing wrong with that, and some of my friends have good taste in music that I'm happy to check out. But I'm still a bit of a snob in that regard. I'd rather hear what's new this month in Indie on Rhapsody, featuring good bands I've forgotten about, such as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, or good bands I haven't heard of before, like Foals and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I don't care that my friends want me to listen to Muse for the umpteenth time or think that the peak of classic rock was the needle-scratching-oeuvre of Steve Perry and Journey.

But maybe I'm in the minority here. Now that we're all social on our networks, connected to the world 24/7 and think of privacy as a notion as outdated as wearing untucked flannel, the future of music lies in listening to what the world wants us to. And some good music has vaulted upward based on that digital buzz -- see Monsters and Men and Akron's own Black Keys for examples. But I still prefer my music filtered through the rarified air of the music expert who can tell me what I should be listening to for my own good, not just what my friends in digital nation may think.

Maybe I think of it as a glass of hot chocolate from a parent before bed -- warm and comforting to my musical curiosity.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Netflix's Upward Mobility

The "It" event of the moment appears to be the Netflix original series, "House of Cards." The concept itself is novel and one that could be a forerunner of more to come; Netflix has made all 13 episodes of the series available for streaming as part of its online service.

The repercussions are immense and further remove us from what used to be our normal patterns of television viewership. We've become a nation of mobile consumers, no longer wanting to be tied down to our couches to watch our favorite shows each night at a certain time. We want it 24/7, a constant flow of information, dynamically connected in time and space to wherever we happen to be and whenever we want to decompress and unwind in front of whatever screen we have available to us. We are all "in the moment."

The network executives have got to be a bit undone by the viewership changes. According to an A.C. Nielsen study, about 31% of the cherished 18-49-year-old audience watch less than two hours of TV each day. This younger group of viewers is 1.5 times more likely than the older, established audience to be considered "light TV viewers" who would rather spend their time on a portable device that glued to a plasma screen in the living room.

Networks have responded in several ways: TV shows are geared to an older demographic, whether crime dramas such as "NCIS" or comedies such as "Modern Family," both of which feature AARP-eligible leads (Mark Harmon and Ed O'Neill). And that's not a bad thing necessarily: More than 40 million Americans are age 60 and older. Hence the continued fascination with all things Betty White and the well-past-its-expiration-date "60 Minutes" and even "The Simpsons."

A few of the savvy networks also are looking squarely at this younger audience. Both NBC and ABC, to name two, have sharp interactive apps that allow the downloading of shows anytime, anywhere. On-demand cable viewing also is growing in popularity.

Netflix is an interesting case for more to come. The online movie service took a lot of heat last year -- and saw its earnings suffer commensurately -- when it attempted to break its streaming service and movies-by-mail service into two and charge higher prices. But now, the company is reversing course via originally produced entertainment that it purchases.

"House of Cards" is one attempt, as was its "Lilyhammer" series last year with former "Sopranos" mobster (and Springsteen guitarist) Steven Van Zandt. We'll get more into "House of Cards" in a future blog, but Netflix also plans to resuscitate "Arrested Development,"albeit for one season only.

What's in it for Netflix? There already is more interest in its streaming service, certainly a cost-friendlier device to the company that shipping out movies in red paper covers. And an update in its brand: Netflix can shout that it no longer just offers indie and less-than-blockbuster fare on its streaming service but now can compete with the likes of HBO and Showtime (plus the cable stations such as TNT and AMC) in quality original content.

Lilyhammer, Netflix's first original series, debuted in Feb. 2012
There is a hard cost to Netflix in acquiring these properties, like the Kevin Spacey political melodrama. But if it meets the needs of our mobile audience demanding more and better content to watch anytime and anywhere, it is a risk that could also lead to more cold sweats from network TV execs.