Stubby Ears and Blood Disorders: Publisher’s Gold

107203_v1Although the barriers to publishing books have fallen precipitously over the past several years with the introduction of the Amazon Kindle ecosystem and similar services from Barnes & Noble, SONY,, the largest challenges for most authors remain intact, namely marketing and distribution. For this reason, the only reliable path to widespread success for writers is to get picked up by one of the major publishing houses and their imprints (Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House+Penguin Group, Macmillan, and Hachette) who will expend money and personnel to cultivate talent and fund promotion.

However, because the big publishers have also seen their traditional revenue streams upended by the e-book juggernaut, they’ve redoubled their focus on deriving greater profits from a shrinking set of people who have a large base of established fans. Notice I said “people” not “authors.” Today, it appears the book publishing industry would rather engage with actors, musicians, TV personalities and sports figures than novelists, biographers and essayists. This is especially true in the non-fiction genre. Top sellers this week on the New York Times nonfiction list (hardcover and paperback) include these erudite scholars from the world of TV: Chelsea Handler, Bill O’Reilly, Greg Gutfeld, Charles Krauthammer, Brian Kilmeade, Tina Fey and Cokie Roberts.

For people who fancy themselves dedicated full-time writers as opposed to celebrities who phone in pointless memoirs and redundant history lessons as part-time money-making shtick, receiving even passing recognition is a pipe-dream. Publishers love to gin up exposure for their top revenue prospects, and with the possible exception of an audience with Oprah, nothing can compete with being the star of a Barnes & Noble’s in-store author event, particularly in Manhattan – home of the traditional publishing industry.

During the of month April, B&N will host dozens of authors who might read passages from their books, discuss characters, and sign books that have been purchased as a prerequisite to attend the event. An examination of this month’s featured writers reinforces the notion that big publishing promo dollars tend toward celebrities who have name recognition and can draw in the loyal fan base. Here are a few of the top draws.

Title: Face the Music: A Life Exposed
Author: Paul Stanley
Literary credentials: Member of rock band Kiss
Publisher’s comment: “A memoir with a gripping blend of personal revelations and gritty war stories about the highs and lows both inside and outside of KISS.” Gripping? They also mention that Stanley was born with an ear deformity that rendered him deaf on the right side – a necessary hardship that every memoir must include to give an otherwise formulaic subject an obstacle to overcome.

Title: Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian
Author: Bob Saget
Literary credentials: TV personality famous for playing maudlin characters and hosting “funny” home videos that actually seemed quite sadistic
Publisher’s comment: “Millions of viewers know and love Bob Saget . . . in this bold and wildly entertaining publishing debut, Bob continues to embrace his dark side and gives readers the book they have long been waiting for.” I believe millions know who Saget is, but love him? Perhaps these are the same dopes who love toe jam and the sound of scraping fingernails on a blackboard. Furthermore. . . “bold” and “wildly entertaining”? Are we talking about the same Saget who once frotted with Liberace?

Title: Playing with Fire
Author: Renee Graziano
Literary credentials: Mobwife on TV
Publisher’s comment: She’s “the star of Mob Wives and perhaps the show’s most compelling character.” I assume they hedge with the word “perhaps” because it’s likely there are absolutely no compelling characters on the show whatsoever.

Title: Love Life
Author: Rob Lowe
Literary credentials: TV and movie actor
Publisher’s comment: “Find yourself in the presence of a master raconteur, a multi-talented performer whose love for life is as intriguing as his love life.” So intriguing in fact that the reader will learn Rob’s views on “camping at Sea World, his first journey to college with his son, trying to coach a kids’ basketball team dominated by helicopter parents, and the benefits of marriage.” Clearly, such insights will open the eyes of middle-class adults who have never experienced such phenomena.

Title: Everybody’s Got Something
Author: Robin Roberts
Literary credentials: Member of TV’s “Good Morning America” show
Publisher’s comment: “Recounts the incredible journey that’s been her life so far, and the lessons she’s learned along the way.” Watch out for the phrase “so far” – that means a derivative sequel is in the works. “With grace, heart, and humor, (ed. note: and not to be outdone by Paul Stanley and his dodgy ear) she writes about overcoming breast cancer only to learn five years later that she will need a bone marrow transplant to combat a rare blood disorder . . .” Damn, she should be on “As the World Turns” instead of “Good Morning America.”

Title: Magnificent Vibration: A Novel
Author: Rick Springfield
Literary credentials: Pop musician/memoirist
Publisher’s comment: ”Bobby calls the 1-800 number scrawled inside the front cover, only to discover that he has a direct line to God. This launches Bobby on an unlikely quest, serendipitously accompanied by a breathtakingly sexy and exceedingly sharp travel companion named Alice. Together the pair sets out to find some combination of spiritual and carnal salvation—and possibly save the planet.” Well, at least Springfield wrote an actual novel involving salvation both carnal and planetary – after penning an obligatory memoir in which he shares grim details of “his lifelong battle with depression.” Sidebar: Is depression a better or worse condition from a memoir point-of-view than a stubby ear?

Title: Jason Priestley: A Memoir
Author: Jason Priestley
Literary credentials: TV and movie actor
Publisher’s comment: “Honest, compelling, and often humorous details of Priestley’s up-and-down life, from his childhood in Canada to his adult life as a husband and father.” Note that the book covers the ups and downs facing Priestly lest his story not meet the required allotment of cheap pathos.

Title: The Closer
Author: Mariano Rivera
Literary credentials: Baseball player
Publisher’s comment: “The man who intimidated thousands of batters merely by opening a bullpen door, began his incredible journey as the son of a poor Panamanian fisherman. When first scouted by the Yankees, he didn’t even own his own glove.” Such is the conceit of the memoir – always a struggle. The dude didn’t even own a fucking glove. (Again, does that trump the Paul Stanley’s bum ear and Robin Robert’s blood disorder?) Nevermind that Rivera pocketed about $170 million for pitching a couple innings every few games thereby outperforming in one year the reader’s lifetime earnings – he suffered more than you.

Title: The Nolan Ryan Beef & Barbecue Cookbook Recipes from a Texas Kitchen
Author: Nolan Ryan
Literary credentials: Baseball player
Publisher’s comment: “Legendary pitcher Nolan Ryan grew up in Texas and early on developed a passion for cattle ranching that rivaled his interest in baseball. His first cookbook offers 75 recipes for sizzling T-bone and rib-eye steaks, mouthwatering burgers, slow-cooked barbecue ribs, and more.” Thank God for Nolan Ryan’s book without which we would still be boiling ground beef in used motor oil and barbecuing ribs in the clothes dryer.

Title: Unbreak My Heart: A Memoir
Author: Toni Braxton
Literary credentials: Singer
Publisher’s comment: “The bestselling solo R&B artist finally opens up about her rocky past and her path to redemption. While Toni Braxton may appear to be living a charmed life, hers is in fact a tumultuous story: a tale of personal triumph after a public unraveling.” Oh yes – the “charmed life” is merely a façade to hide the horrible life of this wealthy diva. Maybe that’ll make you feel better about yourself after spending $27 for the hardcover. (By the way, she has small vessel disease in case you’re feeling smug.)

Title: Brunette Ambition
Author: Lea Michele
Literary credentials: TV star
Publisher’s comment: “The star of the hit show Glee shares her experiences and insider tips on beauty, fashion, inner strength, and more in an illustrated book that’s part memoir, part how-to, and part style guide.” Part how-to . . . what? “Lea Michele is one of the hardest working performers in show business.” Really? I wonder if the thousands of actors performing bit parts off-off-Broadway, sitting in the dark night after night as the never-called understudy, auditioning all afternoon for a bit part on a 30-second TV commercial, and making rent money working second-shift as a singing waiter would agree. But hey – Lea has inner strength, so eff you.

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A Million Bucks Says I’m Against Gambling

adelmoneyFirst we had the righteous clerics, then came the blustery Donald Trump, and now making noises is the addled Sheldon Adelson. What do they have in common? They all hate gambling – at least the kind that interferes with their own pursuit of the wagered dollar.

The hypocrisy of the church, which runs weekly Bingo events and “Las Vegas Style” casino nights inside their dingy parish halls, is well-documented. Although stopping short of calling gambling a sin – that would be a tough proclamation unsupported by Scripture – the church never misses an opportunity to weigh in on the latent evils lurking about the games of chance despite their reliance on the proceeds from chuck-a-luck. A few years ago the Catholic Church in Massachusetts was strident in its opposition to casino gambling in that state, circulating bulletins and ranting from the pulpit, but found their influence wanting. Ironically, according to Ray Flynn, Boston’s mayor at the time, “It was really the clergy sexual abuse scandal that really brought the church to a position where they weren’t very effective in lobbying in the Massachusetts Legislature. I think they lost a lot of their moral and political influence and clout up at the State House.” I guess like Frank Sinatra, the legislature didn’t appreciate the church blowing on some other guy’s dice.
(For more on the subject, read my tart blog entry “The Roman Conflicted Church” from October 2013.)

Back in 1993 when Donald Trump owned three Atlantic City casinos (Trump Castle, Trump Plaza and Trump Taj Mahal), a group of uppity American Indians – referred to as “a very limited class of citizens” by Donald – was making headway in their goal of operating their own casinos. Sensing a looming incursion of an un-American practice known as “competition,” Trump filed a lawsuit against the Federal Government.

Donald Trump’s hairspray reaches its half-life.

The Mashantucket Pequots had already established the lucrative Foxwoods Casino in nearby Connecticut (building a case on the basis that the Catholic Church was already running games of chance there), and now the Ramapough Indians of New Jersey were getting into the act. Trump’s suit maintained that allowing Indian tribes to open casinos discriminated against him. I suspect a blowhard of Trump’s magnitude would have had a hard time self-labeling as a discriminated victim – but money is money, and competition has no place in the pursuit of it. Incidentally, the three Atlantic City casinos once run by Trump filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009 – for the third time. As Donald once said, “I do play with the bankruptcy laws—they’re very good for me.” Obviously better than the laws of chance.

Crepuscular Sheldon Adelson is the billionaire owner, chairman and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which also owns gaming properties in Macao. Adelson and some partners bought the old Vegas Sands Hotel in 1988 and a few years later constructed the fabulous Venetian on top of its razed carcass. He also built a casino complex in Pennsylvania that opened in 2009. So the man clearly is up to his tuchas in casino gambling action. And I have no problem with that.

Yet like so many of his ilk, once he established his dominant position in his chosen industry, Adelson went on the offensive against allowing others to partake of the well. Recently, Adelson, who said “I am willing to spend whatever it takes,” has hired an army of lobbyists to build Congressional animus toward online gambling – you know, playing games of chance on that fad called the “internet.” Disguised as a public service against the rampant corruption of youth that online gambling would advance, Adelson and his minions (aka. pliant, money-grubbing Congressmen) are actually planning to eliminate competition against brick-and-mortar casinos. And screw the conservative dogma about supporting “states’ rights;” Adelson seeks to have the (dare I say it?) Federal Government nullify laws already passed in New Jersey, and those poised to pass in a couple other states. Pussies like the flimsy Lindsay Graham of South Carolina are ready and gaping to take Adelson’s money in return for introducing appropriately punitive legislation.

Sheldon Adelson looks afar for a cure for terminal comb-over syndrome.

Adelson claims “This is not a competitive issue,” adding piously, “my moral standard compels me to speak out on this issue because I am the largest company by far in the industry and I am willing to speak out. I don’t see any compelling reason for the government to allow people to gamble on the Internet.” Strange – usually conservatives don’t see compelling reasons for the government to deny people things they want to do.

As the 11th richest bastard in the world, Adelson is obviously no dummy. He knows the gambling economy is bounded by a finite quantity of revenue people can afford to lose – and every buck wagered online is one that isn’t lost in a brick-and-mortar casino. In other words, concerned Adelson envisions himself as the Barnes and Noble of gambling: a dinosaur up against a fleet-footed Amazon. And he doesn’t like what he sees.

But unlike B&N, Staples, Best Buy and countless other companies fighting online competition by trying to offer personal customer service, more compelling products, and unique in-store experiences, Adelson prefers the blunt instrument of wielding his hefty wealth to stamp out competition by installing specious legislation with the willing aid of Congressional whores.

Despite Adelson’s largesse, I predict he’ll fail in his endeavor – just like his ill-fated $98 million investment in Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign.

Wanna bet?

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Baselworld – Time of Your Life

basel Baselworld Watch and Jewelry Show opens this week in Switzerland, and sadly I am not there. I love watches. The combination of artistry and mechanical precision that results in a world-class time-piece is something to admire – and pay for through the nose. And in some cases, not just a single nose, but the probosci of one’s heirs.

We’re talking five figures to start, and going from there beyond a hundred K in some instances. Are they worth it? Naysayers will note that the $50,000 Patek-Philippe produces inferior time-keeping precision than an Asian-semiconductor-assisted, plastic-strapped, mall-kiosk 2-for-1 special priced at $15. Fair enough. And if the only goal is to ascertain the precise time at any moment, then even possessing a watch would be unnecessary. Many youngsters today have eschewed the wristwatch altogether for the all-knowing-all-seeing cell phone. Too bad.

What the naysayers fail to understand is that the Patek-Philippes (or any number of boutique time-pieces) are elegantly fabricated from precious metals and jewels by a lonely craftsman who has spent months at a cramped table making the god-damned thing. The resulting time-piece is a functional work-of-art. Isn’t that worth something? The elite say “hell, yes,” and commit with their hard-earned(?) paychecks.

Some of my favorites on display this week:

Girard-Perrgaux Tri-Axial Tourbiilon Teaser

Arnold & Son Double Tourbillon Escapement Dual Time

Breguet Tourbillon Extra-Thin Automatic 5377 in Platinum
Classique Tourbillon extra-plat automatique 5377PT_12_9WU-thumb-960xauto-20993

The Harry Winston Opus XIII
Opus XIII_Front_Black Background

The Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 5227
Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 5227-thumb-960xauto-18310

Ulysse Nardin “Stranger”

Glashütte Original Senator Observer 1911

MB&F HM3 ReBel

Blancpain Carrousel Répétition Minutes Le Brassus

Raymond Weil Nabucco Pensiero

Golden Bridge Titanium by CORUM

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Death of a Hate Salesman

pThe 2007 documentary “The Most Hated Family in America” presented by Louis Theroux is not about the Kardashians, the Koch Brothers, the Clintons or Bushes, but rather a sociopathic clan of homophobes established by recently deceased Fred Phelps. Phelps, making a cameo appearance in the film as a somewhat addled, cantankerous human hemorrhoid was the patriarch of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) whose parishioners consist mainly of his hillbilly family members who are infamous for picketing the funerals of American soldiers and politicians in the name of God’s hatred for – in their words – “fags.”

The WBC are also stewards of the charming websites and – and given God’s well-documented infallibility, the WBC must have been pleasantly surprised the Almighty hadn’t already registered the domain names for Himself.

“The Most Hated Family in America” is a less-than-satisfactory documentary in that Theroux mostly plays the bemused observer of all things crazy with the Phelps’s; it reminded me of the skits on “The Daily Show” in which a Comedy Central shill pretends to be doing straight docu while quietly punking the subject. Nonetheless, the raw content of “The Most Hated Family in America” is devastating, and for that I highly recommend viewing. Even though Theroux flubs opportunities to call the WBC cretins to account for their actions, they are more than capable of self-damnation in front of the camera. If you’ve ever wondered how young Muslims came to embrace suicidal jihad, you’ll find signs of similarly toxic inculcation in this film.

Young family members (some as young as 6 or 7) bastardize songs like “America the Beautiful” (“God spread his shame on thee”) and hold up signs that illustrate military members engaging in anal sex, announcing “No Tears for Queers.” The logic is that “soldiers fight for a depraved and doomed nation” and hence they and their families deserve scorn.

To be fair, the WBC also hates Roman Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Sweden. In one sequence, a WBC fanatic rails against the “Jew Church,” and when confronted about the logic of his loathing for a race of people that included Jesus Christ, informs the audience that “Jews worship the rectum.” Wow.


As for the Swedes, the animus apparently stems from that country’s tolerance of Gays – and in retaliation the WBC members employ a scorched-earth strategy and picket an appliance store in the US that sells Swedish-made vacuum cleaners. (The connection is tenuous – unless perhaps the WBC sees a conspiracy between “fags” and Swedish sucking machines?)

Because Fred Phelps makes virtually no air time in the documentary, it is left up to his deranged daughter Shirley to carry the water for the insane. When confronted about the rationale for the abject hatred of Gays, she relies on the commandment against adultery, never stopping to consider picketing the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani. Perhaps she steered clear of the usual shopworn Biblical citation in Leviticus (18:22) about the abomination of homosexuality because the passage is located too close to another sin (Leviticus 19:19) which would seem to trivialize it: a prohibition of wearing a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material. It’s hard to imagine the WBC picketing The Gap proclaiming “God Hates Polyester Blends.”

Seriously, the tactics employed by the WBC are disgusting and demented, and seem to me to be a calculated ploy to provoke a violent reaction from the people they torment so as to gin up greater coverage for their bizarre beliefs. As Theroux notes, “Being hated was proof they were doing the right thing.” To their great credit, the victimized families of dead soldiers who were confronted by placards declaring “Pray for More Dead Soldiers” never took the bait. And even after Phelps kicked the bucket, the widespread reaction of his chosen adversaries was not one of glee, but rather more like a shoulder shrug. For just about everyone except the remainders of the WBC, the loss of Phelps seemed no more consequential than popping a zit – you’re glad it’s gone, but the result is hardly life-altering.

Unfortunately the documentary ends just when things seem to be getting juicy. One of Phelps’s granddaughters, a 21 year old placard-carrying hate-monger, has just been admonished by her mother Shirley for considering going to a diner with a school chum for coffee. Theroux probes: why does a 21-year old adult need the permission of a parent to have a cup of coffee – and why does said 21-year old toe the line so readily? The girl almost cracks to reveal her inner conflict over hating the whole world while wishing to participate in it, but quickly reverts to her Bible-thumping Nazi façade.

I bet a bit more probing would have yielded a truly fascinating documentary about the manifestations of child abuse masquerading as religious fundamentalism.

RIP Rock Action

Scott Asheton, original drummer for The Stooges died March 22 at the age of 64 – which is about 40 years longer than any actuary would have predicted given his association with some of the craziest people to walk on stage in possession of rock n roll instruments (and little of their faculties).

Scott Asheton third from left

Nicknamed “Rock Action” for his pounding beat and passion for the business, Asheton, along with guitarist-brother Ron, bassist Dave Alexander, and seemingly-immortal front-man Iggy Pop together formed seminal band The Stooges in 1967. They quickly banged out two albums, the first being the most influential in my mind (Producer John Cale also performed on a couple songs), but #2 “Funhouse” also rises to the top of the hard-core punk compendium – both nearly a decade before The Ramones, The VoidOids and The Sex Pistols stumbled upon the scene. Number three “Raw Power,” mixed by David Bowie, came out in 1973 with a slightly different line-up, and again was a stunning piece of rock – although the commercial success was non-existent. My favorite tune: “Penetration.”

Still, to be a contributor to a venture that is now understood to be foundational is something Rock Action could be proud of.

After decades in the wilderness, Scott Asheton came back to play on the superb 2013 Stooges “reunion” album “Ready to Die”. Prophetic, indeed.

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The Legacy of Peter Callander

CALLANDER-obit-master180By some calculations the total number of unique five minute songs is 1.7 trillion, of which perhaps five million have been recorded. Given this vast universe of musical combinatorics, it’s understandable that thousands of horrible songs would have been pressed into vinyl, laser-cut into plastic and rendered into bitful MPEG files. Less intuitive is how so many crappy ditties have come to top the pop charts since such tracking began decades ago. Perhaps a song captured widespread attention by its sheer cacophonic ineptitude, like a crowd forming around a car wreck – think “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” by Napoleon XIV, and “Hooked on a Feeling” (ie. the ooga-chaka version) ruined by Blue Swede. Maybe it’s the lemming factor – I have to like the song because everyone else likes it. That’s probably how a piece of shit like “Achy Breaky Heart” reached number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1992, and got a Grammy nomination to boot. But the most probable reason bad songs fare well is that people have no taste.

Thinking back to a time well before iTunes, Pandora and Spotify – when all new music was consumed via the radio – I vividly recall three irritating songs that were the equivalent of poison ivy on my eardrums: “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” for some reason performed around the same time by both Paper Lace and Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods, “The Night Chicago Died” again by Paper Lace, and “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” by numerous lounge lizards, the most famous being Wayne Newton.

“Billy Don’t Be a Hero” tells the tale of a guy who joins the army against the wishes of his fiancée, goes to battle, and of course gets killed. Was he a hero? According to the song, “The soldier-blues were trapped on a hillside – The battle raging all around – The sergeant cried, We’ve got to hang on, boys, We got to hold this piece a’ground – I need a volunteer to ride up, And bring us back some extra men.”

Billy volunteers…to ride into the fracas looking for extra men to bring back? Where the hell from? Rent-a-Soldier? Sounds more like a suicide mission than an act of heroism

This song was not only a cheap tearjerker, but a nonsensical one as well. It made Rolling Stone magazine’s top ten worst songs of the 1970s.

“The Night Chicago Died” with its grating chorus of nah-nah-NAH-nah-nah-NAH’s recounts a Capone-era gangland battle between hoodlums and cops in Chicago (located “Back in the USA” in case there was some confusion about which Chicago was being referred to). The one-night fight raged on “’Til the last of the hoodlum gang had surrendered up or died,” which subsequently spelled the death of Chicago. Apparently, the city ceased to exist from that point forward. A song devoid of suspense, lacking historic foundation, and chock-full of sophomoric lyrics. Still, it made number 1 in 1974.

And then comes “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast,” a million-selling record that reached number 4 on Billboard, and a perennial member of the various incarnations of the “100 worst songs of all time.” Pure corn-pone.

A man is fed up with his wife – so much so that he resolves to leave for good. As he’s walking down the highway (apparently too poor or stupid to take a cab), he gets the sense he’s being followed. Sure enough his bawling “little daughter” has caught up with him. Apparently, 1) contrary to the song’s title, daddy walks real slow, 2) daddy didn’t have the courtesy to tell his daughter he was leaving her for the rest of her life, and 3) mommy doesn’t give a shit if the crying tot ambles down Interstate 15 in her jammies. Anyway, daddy tells the little girl that he has to catch a train. Presumably he presses on in the hope she got the message – but nooooo! “I turned around and there she was again.” Jesus, what an asshole.

By now the listeners of this maudlin three-hankie abortion have fallen into two camps: the weepy-eyed sentimentalists and the rank, concrete-heart set. After daddy proclaims, “I just had to turn back home right there and then, and try to start a new life with the mother of my child,” you want to believe the first camp has come to its senses, renounced its charter and joined the concrete-hearters. Start a new life? Just like that? Shit, in real life, daddy walks all the way home just in time to catch his wife doing the nasty with the pool boy.

Okay, three pretty awful songs that managed to hoist themselves high on the pop charts – and get this: all written by the same man, Peter Callander who died the other day at age 74. According to the obituary after “The Night Chicago Died” became a hit, the manager for Paper Lace “wrote to Chicago’s mayor at the time, Richard J. Daley, asking if the city might be interested in promoting it in some way.” Daley’s response came in a rude, terse letter: “Are you nuts?”

Perhaps one of the mayor’s aides cried out, “Daley, Don’t Be a Zero.”

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19 Screenwriters for Every Screenwriter

43You often hear people complain about the sorry state of movies from Hollywood, an industry that is ever more dependent on revenue from a collection of bloated action blockbusters, reliable if not imaginative sequels to previously successful films, and derivative offerings based on concepts with established bases such as comic books and TV shows. With the exception of a handful of quality movies meant to compete for Oscars released near the end of the year, it seems much of the Hollywood output – despite a concerted, corporate-mentality effort to appeal to a desired target audience – misses the mark more often than not.

For insight into why this might be, take a look at the “winners” of the annual Razzies awards for worst movie, director, screenplay, sequel/ripoff, etc. A common thread among the winners and nominees is the over-abundance of screenwriters and directors who played a role in the development and fashioning of the final product. And I believe such uber-collaboration is a main cause of why so many movies are convoluted, unbelievable, unfunny and generally horrid.

Consider the 2013 “winner” of worst picture, “Movie 43” – taglined “The Most Outrageous Comedy Ever Made.” Perhaps that’s true. It may also be one of the most reviled films of all time, capturing an abysmal 4% rating on RottenTomatoes. How about this sampling of reviews:

“As a film critic, I’ve seen nearly 4,000 movies over the last fifteen years. Right now, I can’t think of one worse than Movie 43.” – New York Daily News.

“Despite all the gross-out humor, the most offensive thing about this is the lazy filmmaking; every shot feels like a first take, and the haphazard editing precludes any comic timing.” – Chicago Reader.

“Absolutely disgusting, nauseating, misogynistic, racist, cruel, void of any common sense.” – Cinema Crazed.

“How many directors does it take to screw in a star-studded piece of aggressive stupidity and call it a movie? An even dozen, and there is no punch line.” – Los Angeles Times.

Say what? Twelve directors?

Yes, and upwards of 20 screenwriters. As Brian Gibson of Vue Weekly properly put it, “It’s death-of-laughter by committee.”

Not surprisingly, most nominees for the 2013 Razzies have this “death-by-committee” phenomenon in common.

“After Earth” – Screenplay by Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan, story by Will Smith.

“Grown Ups 2” – Written by Fred Wolfe & Adam Sandler & Tim Herlihy.
(It took three people to pen a sequel to the moronic “Grown Ups,” but bear in mind, one of them was Adam Sandler.)

“The Lone Ranger” – Screen Story & Screenplay by Ted Elliott, Justin Haythe & Terry Rosso.
(Well at least these three Shakespeares wrote a screenplay AND a screen story.)

“Smurfs 2” – Screenplay by J. David Stem and David Weiss from a story they wrote with Jay Scherick and David Ronn.
(Four guys for a fucking Smurf movie? This had to be on a par with scripting porn.)

What happened to the days when killer scripts came from the manual typewriters of talented individuals like Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Paddy Chayefsky, Francis Coppola and Woody Allen? I suspect risk-averse studios and production companies meddle too much in the course of film-making, interfering along the way to tweak the movie to comport with the latest poll figures and viewer-sentiment metrics just in from the marketing department. Writers receive “help”, then they get replaced altogether – a process that is repeated several times. And directors who stray a tad too close to budget ceilings are summarily sacked.

If other industries reassigned and divided project leadership as much as Hollywood does, you’d probably encounter aircraft made of lead, vitamins that explode on contact with water, and refrigerators with built-in ovens. And maybe even banks selling mortgages to unqualified borrowers which quickly balloon beyond the poor bastards’ abilities to pay them back. Good thing the banks never let that happen.

Pinpoint the Pan – March 9 edition

As I explained many blogs ago, I like to scan the TV section of the New York Times in search of pithy, one-liner pans of movies to be aired that evening. More often than not, the list of crappy movies outnumbers the decent ones – which is likely related to the maladies suggested above. Here are the pans from this past Sunday. No less than ten stinkers in one evening.

“Thoroughly predictable.” – A Knights Tale
“That old hack magic.” – Now You See Me
“In the key of schlock.” – Pitch Perfect
“Sloppy directing debut.” – Quartet (directed by Dustin Hoffman)
“Uninteresting slog.” – After Earth (Razzie nominee for worst picture)
“Fool’s errand, desperately unfunny.” – King’s Ransom
“Gone.” – Going Ape
“Deeply square, largely mirthless.” – The Hangover Part II
“Aggravated melodrama.” – Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail
“Murder on your brain cells.” – Killers

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Got Egg?

egotOne of the lesser-noticed achievements at the Academy Awards ceremony was the emergence of just the twelfth member of the EGOT club – people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. This year Robert Lopez picked up an Oscar for Best Original Song (“Let it Go”) which completed the quatrain of entertainment’s major awards. In fact, Lopez has two Emmy’s, three Tony’s and a Grammy. He joins this list of stars (and it took him only 10 years to make the club, the shortest span of all; the average time-to-completion was 27 years): Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg and Scott Rudin.

(It’s fitting also to mention Bob Fosse who was not a member of the EGOT club, but did win a Tony, Emmy and Oscar – all in the same year of 1973.)

I only wish that Lopez had won the Golden Globe award which he was nominated for this year. Then he would have been granted membership to the even more exclusive GOT EGG club.

Radio Shack Set to Shrink

I read with dismay that Radio Shack, following a devastating $400 million loss in 2013, is planning to shutter 1,100 stores. Now what am I going to do the next time I need a fuse for my Marantz Vacuum Tube Model 9-70-R power amplifier? Or a head-cleaner for my 8-track? I wonder if I’ll still be able to get service on my TRS-80 PC… Jesus! Will the government please come in and bail out Radio Shack? Please!?
Radio Shack started in 1921 with a mission to supply parts for the fast-growing ham radio community. Obviously, the name of the company made sense at its founding, but came to sound old fashioned and out-of-touch by the late 20th Century. (It was called Tandy for a while.) I suspect people associated the stores with nerdish kit builders and creepy loner inventors like Ted Kaczynski.

But I suppose Radio Shack isn’t the only victim of ill-conceived or funny-sounding names. Just walk the halls of any mega-mall.

I remember a shoe store named the Athlete’s Foot, which I believe was around the corner from Painful Rectal Itch. And of course, every mall has a Crabtree & Evelyn, which I’ve been told was originally going to be called Crotchrot & Enema. And what about Häagen-Dazs, the ubiquitous ice-cream store founded in the Bronx and bestowed a Danish-sounding name that is meaningless. The owners just wanted an exotic-sounding name. I believe their first choice, Skräachen-Zsnif, was already trademarked.

And how about Stuckey’s restaurant? Not a staple of malls, but definitely an eyesore along the highways and byways of the interior US. Evoking the image of an uncomfortable mess, what name could be worse for a restaurant chain – especially one whose showcase delicacy is called “The Log”?

@GSElevator Headed for the Basement

I penned a blog recently about what I thought was a serious mistake waiting to happen: the publication by Simon & Schuster of a book written by a supposed-Goldman-Sachs trader who posted insider gossip on a highly-popular Twitter feed called @GSElevator. Even after the enigma behind @GSElevator, John Lefevre was revealed to be a fraud who had never worked at Goldman, and wasn’t even a New Yorker who might have had close second-hand info, Simon & Schuster reconfirmed their plans to publish the book, “Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance and Excess in the World of Investment Banking.”

Given the millions of books that have been “pulped” over the years by publishers at high cost after the authors were unmasked as liars and plagiarists, why would a major publisher proceed knowing in advance their star author was less than forthright?

Turns out, they won’t. According to the New York Times, “The publisher, Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster … released a terse statement saying: “In light of information that has recently come to our attention since acquiring John Lefevre’s ‘Straight to Hell,’ Touchstone has decided to cancel its publication of this work.””

My take: Simon & Schuster was more worried that Lefevre was not in a position to dish decent dirt than about his history of prevarication.

Perhaps they can make it up on a new book deal about the secret world of the NSA with the blogger behind @EdwardSnowdensSistersTrainersHairdresser.

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Is Obsession a Pre-existing Condition?

dead-horseEvery weekend the President of the United States delivers a radio address ostensibly to inform the nation, although I suspect the majority of those tuning in are Beltway insiders and policy wonks. The practice, which was popularized by Franklin Roosevelt in the times before television existed, was resurrected decades later by Ronald Reagan – no doubt influenced by nostalgia and engineered by a staff that wished to parlay his former radio-announcer days into a means of burnishing his folksy image. The weekly radio address continues to this day; Reagan’s institution of the address essentially doomed all subsequent presidents to continue the process lest they be compared unfavorably to the eternally popular, avuncular 40th president.

As the weekly forum gives the President a nice, safe platform to pontificate and spin public opinion, the “loyal opposition” quickly demanded equal time. Thus was born the weekly Democratic/Republican Response – an opportunity for a representative of the out-of-office party to comment on the President’s point of view, or to raise a completely different, presumably pertinent, subject.

This past weekend I turned on the radio just in time to catch the middle of Obama’s soothing banter. After Obama blathered on a bit about job creation, the Republicans countered with a horror story about Obamacare. It included yet another profile of a small business owner whose world faces imminent collapse because of enormous hikes in premiums looming around the corner. At first I thought the station was broadcasting a rerun of a previous show in which the evils of the President’s signature legislation had been vilified by his opponents. But, no, the Republicans had spent consecutive radio addresses to do a hit-job on the Affordable Care Act.

I got to thinking – what were the topics of the President’s radio addresses over the past twelve months, and what were the Republican’s responses? Did they track one another? Did the Republicans respond to Obama’s topic of choice, or did they take the opportunity to raise a separate, pressing issue?

The tally for the GOP is just a tad disturbing in its single-mindedness (see below). Of 53 radio addresses over the past year, the Republicans harped about Obamacare 22 times. That’s 41 percent. They could have spoken about any one of dozens of issues facing the country, but they chose to use their plum spot to pummel Obamacare over and over. Consider this: in the ten weeks from October 19 to December 21, the Republicans bashed Obamacare nine fucking times – resting just once to commemorate Thanksgiving. By the way, in pursuit of documenting the tally I listened to several of the opposition sermons and found nothing in the way of alternatives to Obamacare other than to repeal it.

Yes, the law has flaws – but what’s the plan? No matter what happens, it won’t be repealed until at least January 2017 – assuming a Republican is president and the Senate is in Republican hands and a Democratic filibuster can be overcome. By that time the law will probably be inextricably entangled in the economy. Children under 26 will have coverage under their parent’s plans, people with pre-existing conditions won’t get rejected by insurance companies, lifetime caps on payouts will be eliminated, hospitals that have crappy records on care will get less money from Medicare. Which of these items will people want to give up three years from now once they’ve become used to enjoying them?

But forget Obamacare. Why the obsession on any single topic, regardless of what it is? Can’t Republicans devote even a couple radio addresses to something else, like flag burning and prayer in schools?


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Oscar Prediction Tally

oscarxMy predictions for the 2014 Academy Awards were fairly accurate given the breadth and strength of the nominees (and the often unpredictable mood of voting members.) Of the major awards, I predicted Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Once again, the Academy chose a person who did not direct the best picture as the best director, which continues to confound me.

I picked seven of the 11 significant awards including Best Supporting Actor and Best Animated Feature; I also picked three of the seven technical awards which seemed pretty good given the arcanity of the categories.

In the blog with the predictions, I proposed that a correct pick in the Big Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Original/Adapted Screenplay) be assigned a score of 10 points; a correct pick in the Significant Award Category gets 5 points; and correct picks in Technical Category get 2 points. My score was 81. Here is the tally.


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Sh*t My Phony Goldman Sachs Trader Says

Pin1In 2009, a small-time comedian named Justin Halpern started a Twitter feed called @shitmydadsays featuring verbatim posts of his father’s coarse observations, crude advice and utterances of suburban wisdom. For every clever quote (“That woman was sexy. . . . Out of your league? Son, let women figure out why they won’t screw you. Don’t do it for them.”) there are probably ten moronic, mostly-unfunny blasts (“You’re like a tornado of bullshit right now. We’ll talk again when your bullshit dies out over someone else’s house;” “Listen, I don’t want to stifle your creativity, but that thing you built there, it looks a pile of shit;” “You’re ten years old now, you have to take a shower every day…I don’t give a shit if you hate it. People hate smelly fuckers. I will not have a smelly fucker for a son.”)

Nevertheless, a mere two months after launching the account Halpern parlayed his highly re-tweeted feed into a book deal with Harper-Collins. In May 2010, “Sh*t My Dad Says” opened at #8 on The New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover nonfiction, eventually reaching all the way to #1. The same week the book came out, CBS launched a sitcom based on it, starring William Shatner. Not bad for a guy who simply thought posting his father’s vulgarities would be passingly amusing.

Which brings me to another book deal based on a popular Twitter feed – this one called @GSElevator that serves as an outlet for (supposedly) overheard snarky commentary spouted by privileged Goldman-Sachs traders (“I just want to be rich enough not to be motivated by money;” “Some chick asked me what I would do with 10 million bucks. I told her I’d wonder where the rest of my money went;” “I never give money to homeless people. I can’t reward failure in good conscience.”) The content on @GSElevator had been posted anonymously by a fellow Goldman insider – or so was the conceit until recently. Shortly after the secret Goldman insider inked a deal with Simon & Schuster to develop a book out of his Twiiter feeds, the man’s identity was revealed: John Lefevre – former Citigroup employee, Texan resident, trader-never-employed-by-Goldman. Uh oh.

Many Wall Street books have done very well in the aftermaths of the post-1980s gluttony-fest and the post-2008 Great Recession debacle (see below for some of my favorites) and no doubt Simon & Schuster believed lightning would strike again with the guts of @GSElevator rendered into book form. And the novelty of deriving a book from a social media outlet probably struck the publisher as a cool way to upend the wags who have long predicted the death of the former by the sword of the latter. But what do you do when you discover your newly-signed author is a liar and a fraud? Usually publishers pulp the books of authors who have been unmasked as plagiarizers and prevaricators, and you might expect Simon & Schuster to reconsider doing the deal with Lefevre. But in this case Simon & Schuster is sticking by its man. The book, targeted for an October release is to be titled “Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance and Excess in the World of Investment Banking,” although they may reconsider the use of the word “true.” According to the book’s editor, Simon & Schuster was not misled. “He’s been pretty straight with us the entire time, so this is not a surprise. That you’re writing about him speaks to the interest he’s generated. We always expected his identity to be revealed at some point.”

My take is that Simon & Schuster is spinning like crazy, hoping to salvage their original sales forecast. With so many people conflating Wall Street and dishonesty, it seems ironic that the publication would go forward. But that’s indicative of today’s publishing world: book deals get made with people who have a a big base of established followers. Forget sweating out the 800-page manuscript – make a splash one-hundred and forty characters at a time instead.

Some recommended Wall Street books

“Liar’s Poker: Rising through the Wreckage on Wall Street” by Michael Lewis

“Den of Thieves” by James B. Stewart

“No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller” by Harry Markopolos

“Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America” by Matt Taibbi

“Bailout: How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street” by Neil Barofsky

“The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis

“Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System–and Themselves” by Andrew Ross Sorkin

“The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron” by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind

“Wall Street & the Financial Crisis – Anatomy of a Financial Collapse” by The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations

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Obligatory Oscar Outlook

oscaruLike millions of others I have ideas on who and what will win Oscars at the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony on March 2. Today (Feb 26) I’ve documented my picks for every category and will revisit them in the coming days to (most-likely) apologize for grossly underperforming a random number generator. I saw most of the major movies, and in the lesser categories involving films that are difficult to access outside of NYC and LA, I read reviews and considered the results of awards already bestowed upon the contenders. That is to say, I guessed . . . but it was educated. (FYI – The LA Times explains the nomination and voting procedures which are somewhat arcane as you might expect from an exclusive, insular club.)

My picks are bold-faced.

Big Five Awards

Best Picture
Picking the Best Picture winner has gotten more difficult since the Academy increased the maximum nominations from five to ten in 2009. This year nine films were nominated.
American Hustle – Entertaining but not hefty enough material for snooty Academy tastes.
Captain Phillips – Too much like Castaway with a Somalian playing the role of Wilson the volleyball.
Dallas Buyers Club – Strong contender, perhaps a bit too morbid.
Gravity – Great visually, but the story is too thin.
Her – Too quirky.
Nebraska – Not enough people saw it.
Philomena – Buddy road-trip format not sufficiently weighty.
12 Years a Slave – Powerful story, Steve McQueen is hot.
The Wolf of Wall Street – Glorifies impudent behavior; not as good as previous Scorcese material that didn’t win ( Raging Bull, Goodfellas )

Best Director
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen) – Best Picture and Best Director almost always go together. And as I said above, McQueen is hot.
Other nominees: American Hustle (David O. Russell); Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón); Nebraska (Alexander Payne); The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Best Actor in a Leading Role
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) – McConaughey lost a ton of weight to appear more like a man dying of AIDS, and his performance was compelling. In addition, he’s already bagged Best Actor accolades from SAG and the Golden Globes.
Bruce Dern (Nebraska) could have a chance in that this is likely the last opportunity for the Academy to award Dern who was nominated in 1978 for Coming Home. The Academy is known on occasion to reward a lifetime of work by throwing an Oscar to an aging star (e.g. John Wayne for True Grit. ) Other nominees: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street); Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave); Christian Bale (American Hustle).

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) – Been on the “most likely to win list” for most of 2013. Her performance as a modern-day Blanche Dubois is certainly Oscar-worthy.
Sandra Bullock (Gravity) – If physical exertion were a component, Bullock would win.
Judi Dench (Philomena) – Strong, but Dame Judi already has an Oscar and must bow to Blanchett.
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) – Not a good enough movie to bless with a Big Five award
Amy Adams (American Hustle) – Competitive, but edged out by Blanchett.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke) – No movie is going to win a best Screenplay if it’s not also nominated for Best Picture.
Captain Phillips (Billy Ray) – A retelling of an actual event doesn’t get as much credit as an adaptation of a novel.
Philomena (Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope) – Entertaining story.
12 Years a Slave (John Ridley) – Said to be a most-faithful adaptation of a complex story.
The Wolf of Wall Street (Terence Winter) – The memoir by Jordan Belfort (Leo DiCaprio’s character) was largely panned when it came out.

Best Original Screenplay
American Hustle (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell) – A clever and entertaining riff on the real-life Abscam sting of the 1970s.
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen) – Actually, not that great of a movie, and not nominated for Best Picture. Plus the whole Woody Allen molestation thing will work against him.
Dallas Buyers Club (Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack) – Nothing wrong with this movie, but will lose to American Hustle.
Her (Spike Jonze) – Original idea, but the underlying concept is shop-worn (man falls in love with a machine).
Nebraska (Bob Nelson) – Good vehicle for Dern, but overall not strong enough.

Significant Award Categories

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club). Other nominees: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips); Bradley Cooper (American Hustle); Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle). Other nominees: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave); Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine); Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) and June Squibb (Nebraska)

Best Foreign Language Film
The Hunt (Denmark.) Other nominees: The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium); The Great Beauty (Italy); The Missing Picture (Cambodia) and Omar (Palestine)

Best Animated Feature
Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Peter Del Vecho). Other nominees: The Croods (Chris Sanders, Kirk DeMicco, Kristine Belson); Despicable Me 2 (Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin, Chris Meledandri); Ernest & Celestine (Benjamin Renner, Didier Brunner) and The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki)

Best Documentary Feature
Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, Jeremy Scahill). Other nominees: The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Signe Byrge Sørensen); Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, Lydia Dean Pilcher); The Square (Jehane Noujaim, Karim Amer) and 20 Feet from Stardom (Nominees to be determined)

Best Documentary Short
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life (Malcolm Clarke, Nicholas Reed). CaveDigger (Jeffrey Karoff); Facing Fear (Jason Cohen); Karama Has No Walls (Sara Ishaq) and Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (Edgar Barens)

Best Original Score
Her (William Butler, Owen Pallett). Other nominees: The Book Thief (John Williams); Gravity (Steven Price); Philomena (Alexandre Desplat) and Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman)

Best Original Song
“Let It Go” (Frozen). Other nominees: “Happy” (Despicable Me 2); “The Moon Song” (Her) and “Ordinary Love” (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Dallas Buyers Club (Adruitha Lee, Robin Mathews). Other nominees: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Stephen Prouty); The Lone Ranger (Joel Harlow, Gloria Pasqua-Casny)

Best Animated Short Film
Mr. Hublot (Laurent Witz, Alexandre Espigares). Other nominees: Feral (Daniel Sousa, Dan Golden); Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan, Dorothy McKim); Possessions (Shuhei Morita) and Room on the Broom (Max Lang, Jan Lachauer)

Best Live Action Short Film
Helium (Anders Walter, Kim Magnusson). Other nominees: Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me) (Esteban Crespo); Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) (Xavier Legrand, Alexandre Gavras); Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) (Selma Vilhunen, Kirsikka Saari) and The Voorman Problem (Mark Gill, Baldwin Li)

Technical Awards

Best Cinematography
Nebraska (Phedon Papamichael). Love the black and white. Other nominees: The Grandmaster (Philippe Le Sourd); Gravity (Emmanuel Lubezki); Inside Llewyn Davis (Bruno Delbonnel) and Prisoners (Roger A. Deakins)

Best Costume Design
American Hustle (Michael Wilkinson). 1970s nostalgia attracts the votes of the aging Academy. Other nominees: The Grandmaster (William Chang Suk Ping); The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin); The Invisible Woman (Michael O’Connor) and 12 Years a Slave (Patricia Norris)

Best Film Editing
12 Years a Slave (Joe Walker). Other nominees: American Hustle (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten); Captain Phillips (Christopher Rouse); Dallas Buyers Club (John Mac McMurphy, Martin Pensa) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger)

Best Production Design
The Great Gatsby (Catherine Martin, Beverley Dunn). A bone to a big Hollywood production. Other nominees: American Hustle (Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler); Gravity (Andy Nicholson, Rosie Goodwin, Joanne Woollard); Her (K.K. Barrett, Gene Serdena) and 12 Years a Slave (Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker)

Best Sound Editing
Gravity (Glenn Freemantle). Other nominees: All Is Lost (Steve Boeddeker, Richard Hymns); Captain Phillips (Oliver Tarney); The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Brent Burge, Chris Ward)and Lone Survivor (Wylie Stateman)

Best Sound Mixing
Captain Phillips (Chris Burdon, Mark Taylor, Mike Prestwood Smith, Chris Munro). Other nominees: Gravity (Skip Lievsay, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Chris Munro); The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick, Tony Johnson); Inside Llewyn Davis (Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, Peter F. Kurland); Lone Survivor (Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, David Brownlow)

(Sidebar: If you don’t know the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, check out this explanation .)

Best Visual Effects
Gravity (Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, Neil Corbould). Other nominees: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, Eric Reynolds); Iron Man 3 (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Erik Nash, Dan Sudick); The Lone Ranger (Tim Alexander, Gary Brozenich, Edson Williams, John Frazier) and Star Trek Into Darkness (Roger Guyett, Patrick Tubach, Ben Grossmann, Burt Dalton)

There you have it. Given that all Oscars are not considered equal, I propose that a correct pick in the Big Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Original/Adapted Screenplay) be assigned a score of 10 points. A correct pick in the Significant Award Category gets 5 points. Correct picks in Technical Category get 2 points.


Oscar Ditties Worth Noting

Did you know….?

Three films swept the Big Five awards: It Happened One Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , and The Silence of the Lambs.

Four people won back-to-back Best Actor awards: Luise Rainer, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks.

Walt Disney won the Oscar for Best Short Subject eight years in a row.

It took all the way to 2008 for a woman to win Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker.

At 82, Christopher Plummer was the oldest man to win an acting award: Best Supporting Actor for Beginners.

All About Eve and Titanic were nominated for 14 Oscars. The Turning Point and The Color Purple were both nominated for 11 Oscars – and won none.

Greer Garson and Bette Davis were nominated for Best Actress five years in a row; Marlon Brando was nominated for Best Actor four years in a row. Meryl Streep holds the record for most actress nominations at 18; Jack Nicholson has the record for an actor at 12.

James Dean was nominated twice – posthumously, for East of Eden and Giant .

Although on screen for only 16 minutes, Anthony Hopkins won a Best Actor Oscar for Silence of the Lambs.

Edith Head was nominated 35 times in the Best Costume category.

Woody Allen holds the record for most Best Original Screenplay nominations at 15. He won three times.

Steven Soderbergh was nominated for Best Director twice in the same year for Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2000.

A few somewhat-famous people who never won an Oscar*: Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock (nominated 5 times), Charlie Chaplin, Claude Rains (nominated 4 times), Stanley Kubrick, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Orson Welles, Lauren Bacall, Richard Burton (nominated 7 times), Montgomery Clift, Gene Kelly, Deborah Kerr (nominated 6 times), Dennis Hopper, Glenn Close (nominated 6 times), James Dean, Robert Mitchum, James Mason, Greta Garbo (nominated 4 times), Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Barbara Stanwyck (nominated 4 times), Marilyn Monroe, and Kirk Douglas.

And a few never nominated*: Jean Harlow, Joseph Cotten, Kim Novak, Tyrone Power, Peter Lorre, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Glen Ford, John Barrymore, Blake Edwards and Brian De Palma.

(*) Some have been given honorary awards.


“A” is for Arizona … and Asshole

Last week I wrote a blog about some self-destructive activity taking place in Arizona: the passing of legislation of bald-faced discrimination in the name of religious freedom which awaits a signature or veto from Gov. Jan Brewer. Now that the issue has gained national attention, as well as concern from big businesses like American Airlines and Apple that are worried about customer backlash, the anti-gay bill has started to shudder.

The juiciest part of the whole sordid saga though is the urgency with which some of the bill’s staunch supporters are trying to run from their mess. Companies have called upon Brewer to reject the bill, and according to the New York Times, “their calls were echoed by three Republican state senators — Adam Driggs, Steve Pierce and Bob Worsley, all members of the party’s conservative camp — who had helped pass the legislation in the first place.” Say what?

Blaming the ignorance of those around them for not comprehending the wisdom of their bill, the Three Stooges wrote to their governor, “While our sincere intent in voting for this bill was to create a shield for all citizens’ religious liberties, the bill has instead been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword of religious intolerance, causing our state immeasurable harm.”

I call upon every Arizona business to deny service to these three on the grounds that to serve such patently flaming assholes directly violates their constitutional right to enjoy a sense of decency. Driggs, Pierce, Worsley – conduct your future business in Russia or Nigeria where your views are more in line with the mainstream there.

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My Way or the Arizona Highway

ah1A couple of gay dudes wanted to get married in the sovereign state of Washington about a year ago, a process that is legal there. In between lining up a caterer, hiring a limo and picking out invitation stationery, the men got a shot-down from their preferred florist, Arlene’s Flowers of Richmond. The reason: her “relationship with Jesus Christ” prevented her from serving sinners. How do we know this? The couple, Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, filed a lawsuit. The lawyer for the flower shop, Justin Bristol, said forcing his client to sell flowers for a gay wedding violated her constitutional rights of freedom of speech, association and religious exercise. “She is one of the few people left today willing to stand by her convictions rather than compromise her beliefs,” Bristol said. “She’s a very nice lady and doesn’t have a discriminatory bone in her body.” (Sidebar: she must then be an invertebrate.)

Just a few months ago a Lesbian couple in New Mexico went through a similar episode, this time from a photographer, Elaine Huguenin. The photog claimed that shooting the wedding would “make her celebrate something her religion tells her is wrong (and) would hijack her right to free speech.” The couple went elsewhere for their photo services, but not before filing a lawsuit.

Which brings me to the latest craziness out of Arizona, a bastion of paranoia that could financially screw itself out of a successful Super Bowl next year if the homophobia continues apace. The legislature there has passed a bill that would allow business owners to cite religious beliefs as a legal justification for denying service to same-sex couples. Gentlemen – start your litigation.

To me it seems a lead-pipe cinch that a challenge to the law, should Governor Jan Brewer sign the bill (not a lock given her veto of a religious freedom bill last year) would cut a favorable path through the courts. After all, the bill unequivocally legalizes discrimination. And yet, I believe the aggrieved parties of such a law should stand down, forget litigation, and turn to Yelp, Angie’s List, Travel & Leisure and all the other outlets that praise and denounce purveyors of matrimonial services. Fuck ‘em. If they won’t make a wedding cake for you, go somewhere else, and tell your friends and colleagues that you heard the bakery might have been cited for an e-coli violation. XYZ Florist won’t come through with the arrangement of your dreams? Go down three blocks to an FTD, and while you’re traveling tell your aging Aunt that you heard XYZ secretly steals back flowers from funerals and reuses them on prom night.

From what I’ve read, there is a robust body of thinking that concludes the right of some people to deny services is sacrosanct. “Photographers, writers, singers, actors, painters and others who create First Amendment-protected speech must have the right to decide which commissions to take and which to reject,” the libertarian Cato Institute and two law professors — Eugene Volokh of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dale Carpenter of the University of Minnesota — told the New Mexico Supreme Court in the aftermath of the big “Florist Denial Assault of 2013.”

It makes sense. You don’t want to serve queers and Lesbos? You don’t need a law. The baker can claim his oven is on the fritz. Or he ran out of yeast. The photographer can say she has a prior engagement, or expects to have pink-eye on the wedding day. Bigots who want to deny services don’t need a law to prevent them from practicing bigotry.

To the inconvenienced, forget litigation – it only draws undeserved attention to a bereft cause. Take your valued business elsewhere and stick a dagger wherever you can along the way.

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50 Years a Slave to Vietnam

playbillFiftieth anniversaries of historic events tend to revive memories of those old enough to recall them, as well as stoking interest in those who may have no inkling of their importance. Last year’s anniversary of JFK’s assassination was met by the mass publication of several books and novels, including Steven King’s massive “11/22/63” and Bill O’Reilly’s derivative “Killing Kennedy,” and an untold number of television retrospectives. The 50th anniversary of D-Day in June of 1994 brought similar attention to that historic invasion that helped turn the tide of World War II.

2014 brings us the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s crusade to enact a Civil Rights bill while running for election against sunbelt conservative Barry Goldwater and, for a while, Southern-fried race-baiter George Wallace. And with this milestone, the popular interest in LBJ has piqued once again. The New York Times ran a lengthy article recently titled “Rescuing a Vietnam Casualty: Johnson’s Legacy” in which Johnson’s daughter Luci bemoans the Vietnam War’s shadow across LBJ’s other achievements. And the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin will run a big Civil Rights Summit in April to commemorate the bill’s passage. Meanwhile, new biographies and historical treatises are pouring out.

This past week I saw “All the Way,” the new Broadway play written by Robert Schenkkan currently in previews at the Neil Simon Theatre, and starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ. The two-act play opens in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination and proceeds quickly to Johnson’s most pressing concern – getting elected for real in the coming 12 months. He decides the time is right to enact a comprehensive Civil Rights bill (good for capturing black votes, not so good for Democrats trying to keep a lock on the South) and enlists the support of numerous influential members of Congress as well as the Negro constituency that has grown impatient (and concerned about losing their idol JFK to a Southern good ole boy). The adroitness with which LBJ plays the Machiavellian master is mesmerizing, and funny. (Sidebar: LBJ needs 25(!) Republicans to break a filibuster – and gets it! Imagine such a thing happening today.)

Cranston is masterful in the role of the 36th president, towering bully one moment, insecure former poor boy from the Texas Hill Country the next. LBJ is the central character of course, but right next to him in completing the story are Martin Luther King (Brandon Dirden) and J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean), both of whom manipulate and are manipulated by Johnson.

I haven’t seen a play this good, this completely compelling in many years. The story is multi-layered and intricate, building up LBJ’s political prowess while revealing his inherent insecurity over the possibility of losing. Cranston’s performance is a triumph; within just a few minutes you forget you’re watching Walter White. Cranston’s transformation into LBJ is immediate and sustained. The rest of the cast is highly polished as well – in fact most of the players take on multiple roles. In addition to portraying Hoover, for example, McKean also plays Sen. Robert Byrd and a grave-digger. Betsy Aidem plays Lady Bird Johnson, Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and Rep. Katherine St. George.

In addition to bringing many one-time household names to life (Robert McNamara, Stokely Carmichael, Hubert Humphrey, Ralph Abernathy), “All the Way” develops the character of Walter Jenkins, LBJ’s faithful personal assistant. At a time of despair over the seeming demise of the Civil Rights bill, at a point when LBJ considers dropping out, Jenkins comforts LBJ with kind words. LBJ, a man with two daughters, tells Jenkins he is the son he never had. Later, just weeks before the 1964 election, Jenkins is arrested for “disorderly conduct” with another man in a public restroom. This was an incident I had never heard of, and it’s inclusion is critical: the speed and callousness with which LBJ discards the man is devastating. And audience sympathy for LBJ is subsequently diminished, as it came to be in real life after the details of the Gulf of Tonkin affair and the LBJ-directed bugging of King came to light – two elements foreshadowed in the play.

As the play wraps with the election-night celebration of Johnson’s victory in a landslide over Goldwater, all you can think about is the tragedy of Vietnam and King’s assassination that loom in the coming years. Expect the 50th anniversary of those milestones to capture attention when the time is right.

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The Dead Pool

memoriamSomewhere near the middle of the Academy Awards ceremony the organizers air a segment called “In Memoriam” in which a few dozen select members who have died in the previous 12 months are featured in a montage of film clips and other footage. It’s usually the highlight of the evening for me – a fascinating few minutes to recollect a broad swath of film history.

For this year’s segment, the Academy will have more than 100 deceased members to choose from, and therein lies opportunity for speculation and controversy. Some august body of Academy grey-beards must winnow down a huge list of worthy people to a subset consisting of what movie fans would consider the most influential in the business, trying to balance between famous actors and behind-the-scenes editors, hairdressers and choreographers. Still, some recognizable actors fail to make the short list, causing outcries of “snub,” implying the Academy purposefully chose to insult someone rather than striving to stay within a 3 minute envelope of air-time. This happened in 2010 when Farrah Fawcett was omitted. The reason given: she was more of a TV actress and should be honored during the Emmy’s instead (the Academy subsequently apologized to Fawcett’s family.) And last year, Andy Griffith and Larry Hagman were the chosen snubs. I suppose some would write off Griffith as primarily a TV personality like Farrah, suggesting they never saw his triumphant performance in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd.

It seems that calling out the “In Memoriam” snubs is the newest Academy Awards sport, joining snarky takes on the gowns worn by the women in attendance. I recall listening to a rant on the radio last Fall by Adam Klugman decrying the omission of his father Jack Klugman from an In Memoriam segment during the Emmys. “I think it’s criminal,” said Adam Klugman in an interview with The Associated Press. “My dad was at the inception of television and helped build it in the early days.” It further pissed off son of Klugman that dead “Glee” star Cory Montieth was included. “It’s an insult and it really seems typical of this youth-centric culture that has an extremely short attention span and panders to only a very narrow demographic,” the boy exclaimed.

Who knows what will happen at this year’s award show, but I’m willing to stake bus fare that these people will make the montage:

Shirley Temple
Peter O’Toole
Jim Gandolfini
Annette Funicello
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Jonathan Winters
Esther Williams
Dennis Farina
Eileen Brennan
Elmore Leonard
Bryan Forbes
Ray Harryhausen
Jean Stapleton
Maximillian Schell
Fay Kanin
Milo O’Shea
Ray Dolby
Roger Ebert (Not an Academy member, yet I believe an exception would be made given the complaints of “snub” after Gene Siskel was left out.)

The Academy saves the best for last. Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Billy Wilder and Liz Taylor wrapped up the montage in years past. My money is on Peter O’Toole this year for the closing honor.

Next Week: Oscar Predictions

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(Speaker of the) House Rules

cryA couple days ago the 535-member Vaudeville troupe known as “Congress” voted to raise the debt ceiling of the United States – a ridiculous process not endured by any other nation in the world except Denmark which has an almost unreachable limit. Not that huge U.S. debt is such a great thing, but raising the debt limit merely authorizes the Treasury to pay for things Congress already appropriated. If the U.S. must play charades with a debt limit, then it should be raised before Congress spends money, not after. This arcane, useless law provides a platform for a lot of grandstanding, and every time the limit comes close to being breached, the economy gets fucked. The whole thing is a goddamned embarrassment.

Anyway, prior to the most recent vote to increase the limit, there was a thing called the “Boehner Rule” (pronounced BOH-ner for fun), named after Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio. In short, the rule states that there must be dollar-for-dollar spending cuts for every dollar raised in the debt ceiling. That didn’t happen this time, which calls into question the wisdom of naming a rule after yourself, then breaking it. Boehner also broke the “Hastert Rule,” another Speaker of the House declaration named after Dennis Hastert. It states that all legislation must garner a majority of the majority to be passed. That didn’t happen either. The vote to raise the ceiling was 221 to 201 in favor, but only 12 percent of the voting Republicans (the majority party) went for it.

Maybe it’s time to ditch these pompous rules which are promoted as though they are on the same plane as a mathematical formulation like l’Hôpital’s Rule, Cramer’s Conjecture, Euler’s Formula, or the Pareto Principle. The concepts embodied by “The Boehner Rule,” “The Hastert Rule” and “The Bush Doctrine” are too simple-minded to be dignified with a lofty title.

Still, given the venality of politicians, I can only imagine more, not fewer, rules are in the offing.

The Rangel Rule (Named after NY Congressman Charlie Rangel.)
Forgetting to pay property taxes on Caribbean condos may not disqualify members of Congress from re-election by an adoring constituency.

Corollary to the Rangel Rule
Same shit goes for forgetting about illegally occupying too many rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan.

Lemma to the Corollary to the Rangel Rule
Illegally using the House of Representatives parking garage as free storage space? Fuck you. See the original Rule.

The Vitter Conjecture (Named after LA Senator David Vitter.)
All legislation must comport with “Family Values,” and “Madam” may be considered a member of the Family.

The Waxman Rule (Named after CA Congressman Henry Waxman.)
Neither domestic nor military spending may exceed the size of Waxman’s nostrils.
The Romney Doctrine (Named after former governor of MA, Mitt Romney.)
But first be a corporation who needs corporations…

The Pelosi Principal (Named after CA Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.)
Any decrease in the debt ceiling must be offset by an increase of equal value of Botox.

The Ayn Rand Paul Law (Named jointly after Author Ayn Rand and KY Senator Rand Paul.)
Three laws must be repealed for every one repealed.

The Cruz Conjecture (Named after TX Senator Ted Cruz.)
41 > 60

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Mad Men Showcase Stupid White Men

whitemanI infrequently watch television, but when I do I’m invariably assaulted by a truly irritating commercial for Crestor, AstraZeneca’s monster $7 billion cholesterol drug. Relying on a disturbing pattern that has become cemented across the TV commercial spectrum, the Crestor ad features a dumpy white man behaving like a puerile imbecile upon learning that Crestor – apparently his favorite home team drug – outperformed some competitor. As a serious black actor portraying a doctor on the television extols the virtues of the product, the white man hops around the living room while his wife and kid roll their eyes. You have to wonder how such an asshole came to be married to a normal-looking woman, let alone figured out how to father a son. (Or maybe the infinitely more well-adjusted kid was adopted.)


For some reason, the men and women of Madison Avenue have latched onto an insulting marketing tactic that portrays white men as foolish dolts. It’s undeniable that humorous ads tend to be remembered longer which is the whole point – but I have to believe these ads risk alienating a big slice of the intended market. I’d rather slough along through life with a cholesterol level of 400 than take a chance that consuming Crestor would turn me into a freaking jerk.

I note that other demographics are rarely the object of such baldfaced derision (at least not in the past 30 years). Imagine if the Crestor ad featured a black husband moon-walking like a jive-ass clown while a respectable, middle-aged white guy played doctor. Or if the wife was portrayed as an Edith Bunker-ish dingbat. Outrage would ensue, and the offended would prevail in not only having the commercial banned, but in extracting a groveling apology from the chief marketing officer.

Here are a few additional samples of “Morons on Parade”:

An early example includes this Tostitos ad in which a goofy guy tries to insinuate himself into a gaggle of gorgeous women at a party. This lowly human scum believes he has permission to actually speak to the girls by virtue of his possession of a salty snack. The chicks go for the Tostitos (naturally) but as for goof-boy: “get out of here.” For some reason there wasn’t a similar ad showing a homely girl getting the combined diss from five studly men.


What kind of jerk talks to an insurance salesman in the middle of the night in the dark? And in such a fashion as to be mistaken for making horny talk with a breathy representative of the phone-sex industry. After the man’s harpy wife grabs the phone from his hands, instead of telling her to cease and desist, he stands there like a chastened schoolboy.

State Farm

Liberty Mutual wants to be perceived as the caring insurance company, recognizing that people are “only human” and prone to make mistakes. This ad consists of several brief vignettes of minor calamities:
- A white man forgets to put his car in park and chases it as it rolls down a hill, as if that has any hope of success
- A haircut-impaired white man beats on a ketchup bottle like a caveman until he blasts a red glop onto his lunch companion
- A white man drops an air-conditioner from his third-floor apartment onto the roof of a parked car
- A white man falls flat on his ass, hamburgers flying, after he walks headstrong into a closed screen door
- A man’s foot is shown crashing through the ceiling
- A dorky white man dressed like Poindexter from “Revenge of the Nerds” splashes a milk shake all over himself when he forgets to put a lid on the blender
- A white man drives his car into the garage, forgetting he has two bicycles strapped to the roof.
Oh yeah, a woman has her car door torn off its hinges by a passing pick-up truck, but there’s little doubt that calamity was the fault of a careless white male driver.

Liberty Mutual

Discover Card forgives people when they forget to pay their credit card bill on time – especially if the reason for the lapse is that a childish white man bought a puppy instead of making a bank deposit. Mr. Irresponsible is shown carrying the puppy down the stairs, presumably unaware that animals urinate and defecate. The best entry in the comments section for the Discover ad: “I hate this commercial, but I love the fact that everyone else hates it too.”

Discover Card

A white guy flips over a sexy, attractive female…plumber? OK, I don’t buy the “Flashdancer” conceit, but it’s marketing. The white guy desperately wants to meet the plumber, so he tries to plug up his Kohler toilet. He’s shown throwing all form of flotsam and jetsam down the shitter, but everything goes down. He just can’t seem to plug up the Kohler toilet! More to the point, he also just can’t seem to come up with a better, more mature way to introduce himself to Jo the Plumber. Finally, he’s shown pouring dog food into the toilet just as his wife/girlfriend stumbles upon his bizarre behavior. Which begs the question: suppose he succeeded in plugging the toilet, thus contriving a reason to call Jo – what was supposed to happen next? A menage a trois in the bathroom in ankle-deep sewage?


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Where Have All the Odd Times Gone?

photo8My great-aunt – born at the turn of the 20th century, a woman who might have been dubbed a “spinster” when that term still had currency – was a world-traveler and voracious reader and collector of books. After she died, her last will and testament afforded a local convent the first right of refusal of her vast library. The nuns picked out the best of the lot, no doubt intent on selling the booty and turning the proceeds over to the leadership of the diocese who knew best how to spend the loot. What remained after the spheniscidine vultures had snapped up their allotment was a mostly tattered assortment of odd volumes packed up in a few dozen liquor boxes that my father grudgingly lugged home. Luckily, the nuns were unschooled in literature and arcana because those liquor boxes contained a few real treasures. A beautiful set of three mid-19th century volumes of birds, reptiles and mammals complete with stunning colored etchings, several bound volumes of National Geographic magazines from the 1920s and ‘30s, the complete Stoddard’s Lectures, and a Gutenberg Bible. Ok, no bible – but better still, a signed, first edition of Robert Ripley’s “Big Book of Believe it or Not.”

Of all the leftover books we retrieved from my great-aunt’s musty flat, Ripley’s “Big Book” was my favorite, the one I read cover to cover over and over, the book I reached for first before visiting the bathroom. I memorized all the tales – mostly observations of mutant humans and bizarre behavior centered about the Far East – and the mind-twisting number puzzles, peculiar word origins and historical trivia. Did you know a butterfly was once called a flutter-by? That the oldest man in the bible – Methuselah – died before his father? That a cryptic letter containing just this series of letters – OPQRST – led to the successful recovery of a prisoner of war? That Pennsylvania was not named after William Penn?

As much as I reveled in these odd pieces of trivia, the stuff of “Big Book” that riveted me most of all were the voyeuristic drawings of the poor, hideously deformed people Ripley stumbled across in his many years journeying to more than 150 countries (at a time when most American’s stayed within 50 miles of their birthplace.) The Chinaman with four pupils in his eyes, the construction worker who survived a crowbar pierced through his skull, the blind man who read Braille with his tongue, the woman with two-foot long feet, the drunk who ate a sack of Portland cement, the acetic who every day stared at the sun long after his eyes were seared into glassy marbles – these were the stories I ate up.

How Ripley came to be a world traveler, author of several adventure books, and founder of a still-operating “freak” show exhibit called the Odditorium is meticulously documented in the recent biography “A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley” by Neal Thompson (Crown Archetype, 2013). As a boy Ripley was a talented sketch artist who eventually snagged a job as a cartoonist for a local newspaper. At a time before the technology of photography was solid enough to faithfully capture high-speed athletics, Ripley was employed to draw the action to accompany stories covering the games. Such were the quality and liveliness of his drawings that Ripley parlayed his stint into becoming a syndicated cartoonist. He distinguished himself from others of his ilk by searching out and sketching amazing tales of off-the-wall athleticism: a man who hopped the 100 yard dash in 11 seconds, another who skipped rope 11,810 times, an armless golfer who broke 100 on an 18 hole course. It was these stories of unusual and “unbelievable” human prowess that brought in the readers – and this was in the days when newspapers were king. No competition from radio or TV for the attention of the public, Movietone newsreels being the only visual outlet for goings-on around the world. A man who could attract loyal readership to a newspaper syndicate was highly regarded – and highly compensated. At his peak Ripley commanded salaries during the Depression that would satisfy most people today – before adjusting for inflation.

Like all media outlets competing for eyeballs, Ripley’s employers at Hearst needed him to continue the production of cartoons depicting strange and exotic escapades – stupid athletic tricks weren’t enough. So they sent him out to the four corners and across the seven seas to seek out the weird and wonderful. To wander the world – especially China – was Ripley’s most cherished avocation.

You don’t need to read Thompson’s book to recognize that Ripley possessed a kind-of macabre interest in the human “freak.” (In fact, you only should read the book if you want to dive extremely deep into Ripley’s whole life from start to finish). Just check out his numerous volumes of drawings and the legacy of his early 20th century Odditoriums. Often he seemed more interested in shocking viewers with ever more grotesque discoveries than in educating them on the curiosities of far-flung cultures. Still, if you imagine yourself isolated in rural Nebraska or Utah or Iowa in the 1930s wary of driving more than a few dozen miles in your un-roadworthy Model T with tyres made from rubber trees, reading one of Ripley’s reports complete with first-hand sketches from Siam or Transjordan or Ceylon would have been exhilarating.

Today, in a world of YouTube and always-on cameras, virtually nothing comes as a shock anymore – which I find saddening. The inability to be astounded has ruined it for me.
A man with a forked tongue covered completely in green tattoos so that he resembles an iguana? Run of the mill. A guy eats 413 biscuits in one sitting at Red Lobster and it barely makes news (even when he flops into a coma afterwards). Ripley writes of an Indian swami who could lift a 40 lb bag of snakes with his eyeballs. What about a guy who hoists more than 100lbs with his nutsack? Boring, right?

Ripley’s time of wide-eyed wonder has disappeared, and all we’re left with is jaded ennui.

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Publish, then Perish?

jdA couple weeks ago, film director Quentin Tarantino learned from his agent that his screenplay, “The Hateful Eight” had been leaked. He rightfully threw a fit, laid down some surmised accusations (actors Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen, producer Reggie Hudlin), and promised to shelve the project – at least to the extent that “The Hateful Eight” would not be his next picture as once planned. (Sidebar: just today more news has come out suggesting Tarantino will do the film after some substantial rewrite) As reported in Deadline Hollywood, Tarantino said, “I’m very, very depressed. I finished a script, a first draft, and I didn’t mean to shoot it until next winter, a year from now. I gave it to six people, and apparently it’s gotten out today.”

This news followed on the heels of the revelation in November that three unpublished short stories by J.D. Salinger had been made public against Salinger’s wishes (he stipulated that certain materials not be published until 2061 – 50 years after his death – although it is not clear whether the three leaked stories were among the trove of writings considered for eventual publication.)

(UPDATED 2/5/14 – Apparently even a Pope cannot escape the treachery of his confidants, as this story in the NYT reveals: Entrusted to Burn John Paul II’s Notes, Cardinal Publishes Them Instead. )

If you consider the sentiment of Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Salinger’s seminal “The Catcher in the Rye,” you may conclude Salinger despised voyeuristic types – the “dopes” who would read unauthorized stuff from a writer who might prefer to write for himself: “I swear to God, if I were a piano player or an actor or something and all those dopes thought I was terrific, I’d hate it. I wouldn’t even want them to clap for me. People always clap for the wrong things. If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddam closet.”

Although conflicted about the ethics of reading material intended to remain unread, I decided to download the screenplay as well as Salinger’s trio of stories: “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” “Birthday Boy,” and “Paula.” I don’t countenance the practice of releasing privileged content (in Tarantino’s case it’s a draft screenplay under development; in Salinger’s case he may not have considered the stories to be of high enough quality to see the light of day) but once material becomes available, it seems inconsequential whether or not it is read. How much additional harm does the author suffer for each unauthorized perusal?

Holden Caulfield makes a brief appearance in “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” the best of the three unauthorized shorts – a story about Kenneth, a headstrong 12-year-old boy narrated by his brother, a writer named Vincent. The tale is full of rich imagery, and the handful of characters are well-developed inside of 15 pages. Kenneth wears a baseball glove on which he’s written lines of poetry he enjoys reading when nothing much is happening on the ball field. Blake, Keats, Coleridge. Vincent notes, “They weren’t such hilarious lines quoted by a kid with the severest kind of heart trouble.” A kid with the severest kind of heart trouble who yearns to swim in a turbulent ocean that beckons him. “Birthday Boy” introduces Ray, an ill young man who’s just turned 22. Salinger provides just a hint of the reason for Ray’s presence in a hospital, as well as the source of friction between him and his girlfriend. “Paula” is just a strange tale of insanity that didn’t hold up for me (but what do I know.)

Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” is quintessential Quentin – a character study set in the snowy West shortly after the Civil War that involves deception, treachery, ultra-violence, and the word “nigger” at least 50 times. A bounty hunter and his female prisoner are traveling by stagecoach just ahead of an enormous blizzard when they happen upon a black man wearing a Union army officer’s uniform. He too is a bounty hunter in possession of three frozen stiffs worth $8,000. His horse died which is the reason he needs a ride, and subsequently convinces the other bounty hunter to let him and his dead booty aboard. They come to an agreement that each will protect the other’s financial interests.

Soon enough they come across another man on the trail – the future sheriff of Red Rock, the town that is their destination. His horse also bought the farm, and he needs a ride. Once aboard we learn this lawman is a died-in-the-wool Confederate which turns close quarters with the black bounty hunter tense. When the three men, one woman and the stagecoach driver arrive at Millie’s Haberdashery outside of Red Rock, they discover an unexpected situation: Millie and her husband ain’t there, but several strangers are: a cowboy, a hangman, an old Confederate General, and a French caretaker. The story then morphs into something akin to Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” with the white bounty hunter querying the odd collection of guests on their backgrounds and motivations, Hercule Poirot-like, trying to determine whether anyone might be thinking of interfering with his pursuit of bounty money. Convenient to the plot is the fact that just about every character seems to be familiar with one or more of the other characters, even though things take place in the socially-constricted mid-19th century hinterlands of the Wild West. The white bounty hunter knows of the sheriff’s father, the black bounty hunter fought in a battle against the general, the general knows the sheriff.

After each character’s background is established, and interpersonal relationships are formed as a result, the story flashes back to when the strangers first arrived at Millie’s, and reveals the nastiness they engineered upon poor Millie and her husband. We learn that the men are there to free the female prisoner from incarceration. The story flashes forward to where it left off and proceeds to the blood-soaked climax.

Like so many of Tarantino’s movies, this one culminates in a crazy free-for-all shoot-out where just about everybody dies a horrible death. Think “Django Unchained,” “Kill Bill” and “Inglorious Basterds.” By now, Tarantino must feel the pressure to deliver ever more gory spectacles lest his hard-core fans wallow in disappointment.

The writing in “The Hateful Eight” is evocative and the scene descriptions creative and strongly visual as you would expect of any decent script. One particularly powerful scene involves the black bounty hunter taunting the old Confederate General with details of the death of his son – details the old man shouldn’t know and would never have wanted to hear. If the film ultimately goes forward intact, that scene will stand out as one of the more brutal in the Tarantino oeuvre, which is saying a lot.


Philip Seymour Hoffman died the other day at the age of 46. I remember first seeing him perform in the 1996 movie “Hard Eight” along with noted character actor Philip Baker Hall, and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. With so many players using their full three names, I often confused the bunch. The two Philips – Hoffman and Hall – also appeared together in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Boogie Nights,” and “Magnolia” further exacerbating the confusion. Soon enough though, Hoffman would distinguish himself such that no one would ever mistake him for another actor.

Although more famous for his work in film, including a Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Capote,” Hoffman was also an accomplished stage actor. I saw him in 2000’s revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West” at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York. The spare stage was set in the middle of the floor surrounded by the seats like a boxing arena. Which seemed appropriate for this two-man play.

The play centers on estranged brothers – one a screenwriter (Austin), the other a drifter (Lee) – who meet up after two years of no contact. The characters are basically complete opposites. The night I saw the play, Hoffman was in the role of Austin, a docile man who tends toward subservience to his older brother, played by John C. Reilly. The director of the play arranged it so Hoffman and Reilly exchanged roles every other performance – a novel concept which undoubtedly challenged both actors. Both received Tony nominations that year.

The last time I saw Hoffman was just the other day on a Turner Classic Movies special “And the Oscar Goes To…” He commented on the great honor of snagging an Oscar for “Capote” – and he looked like shit. Someone who didn’t know better would peg his age north of 60. The transformation from a pudgy kid to a haggard-looking geezer over just 15 years is on a par with that of Orson Welles.
Dedicated actors often tear themselves physically and mentally to get into a character – few more thoroughly than Hoffman. He paid for it, and so did his fans ultimately.

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Dead Yet?

Picture1Every now and then, while watching TV or scanning a magazine, we come across a quasi-famous, once-notable, vaguely familiar person who has been out of the public eye for years or decades, and ask ourselves – is he or she still alive? The extended absence from the limelight has left a void of publicity. Sometimes we conflate such people with others which serves to confuse their mortal status. “Is Dick Sargent dead? Or am I thinking of Dick York?” (Answer: both are dead.)

Here is a list for you to peruse, and test your recollection (no peeking on Wikipedia). Answers at the bottom.

Fred Biletnikoff – Football Hall of Famer from my home town of Erie, Pa. Wide receiver for Oakland Raiders in the 1960s and 70s

Ernest Borgnine – Oscar winning actor, most famous for his roles in “Marty” and “From Here to Eternity.” Or for some people, their fondest memories might be the wacky “McHale’s Navy”.

Berke Breathed – Odd-ball creator of the much-admired and now defunct comic strip “Bloom County”.

Gay Brewer – PGA golfer who won the 1967 Masters.

Sean Casey – Also known as KC, leader of the soporific disco band KC and the Sunshine Band.

George Chakiris – Actor best (only?) known for his role as Bernardo in the film version of “West Side Story,” for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Cyd Charisse – Long-legged dancer cast in numerous seductive roles. Best performance: dancing with Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain”.

Michael Collins – Member of the Apollo 11 mission who didn’t get to be among the first men who walked on the moon. He had to stay behind in the capsule and keep the coffee maker running.

Ann B. Davis – Winner of back-to-back daytime Emmy’s in the 1950s but best known as the wise-cracking mediator for the blended family known as the “Brady Bunch”.

Dino De Laurentiis – Renowned Italian film producer. Some of his movies: “La Strada,” “Serpico,” “Barbarella,” “Blue Velvet,” and “Death Wish”.

Tom Dempsey – Half-armed, club-footed place kicker for the New Orleans Saints who kicked a 63-yard (!) field goal in 1970 to beat the Detroit Lions with no time left.

Phyllis Diller – Fright-wigged comedienne who dressed in wildly patterned outfits and mocked her appearance. A regular on such shows as “Laugh-In” and “The Tonight Show,” Diller was famous for her self-deprecating jokes.

Kathy Garver – Actress who played “Cissy” on the treacly 1960s television series “Family Affair” with Brian Keith.

Graham Greene – Not the author of “The Quiet American,” but the Canadian-born actor who played an Indian named Kicking Bird in Kevin Costner’s 1990 epic “Dances With Wolves,” among numerous type-cast roles as an American Indian in lesser-known movies.

Murray Hamilton – Character actor who appeared in countless films. Probably his most recognizable roles were the Mayor of Amity in “Jaws” and Mr. Robinson in “The Graduate.” Coincidentally, Richard Dreyfus was in both movies as well.

Shirley Jones – Probably best known as the mother of the irritating Partridge Family, but prior to her TV career had performed in film musicals “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” and “The Music Man,” She also bagged an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1960′s “Elmer Gantry”.

Alex Karras – Pro footballer for the Detroit Lions turned movie actor, best known as Mongo in 1974′s “Blazing Saddles”.

Jack Kehoe – Familiar-faced character actor whose name no one knows. Played Joe Erie, Robert Redford’s side-kick in “The Sting”.

Lenny Montana – One-time professional wrestler (the fake kind) Montana was cast as Mafia goon Luca Brasi in “The Godfather”. His death scene is still hauntingly realistic.

Billy Preston – R&B and Soul musician, sometimes referred to as the “fifth Beatle” for his keyboard work on the albums “Abbey Road” and “Let it Be” as well as for his calming influence during contentious recording sessions. Possibly the best Afro in history.

JD Salinger – Reclusive author of “Catcher in the Rye”.

John Sculley – Apple founder Steve Jobs recruited Sculley from Pepsi in 1983 to lead the upstart personal computer company. When friction between Jobs and Sculley peaked shortly afterwards, Sculley engineered a boardroom coup that resulted in Jobs ouster.

Omar Sharif – Dashing film star of such epics as “Dr. Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Harry Dean Stanton – Dogfaced character actor in about ten thousand movies, many of them quirky. Just a sampling: “The Godfather Part II,” “Alien,” “Repo Man,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Green Mile,” and “Paris, Texas”.

Stella Stevens – Born Estelle Eggleston, Stevens started her career as a model, and was featured as Playboy’s Playmate of the month for January 1960. She later turned her sexy image toward films. I think my favorite is her role as a former hooker in “Poseidon Adventure” where following the capsize of the ship struts around wearing only F-me pumps and a man’s shirt.

Sylvester (Sly) Stone – Frontman for the influential funk band Sly and the Family Stone.

Peter Tork – Not another “fifth Beatle” but a member of the manufactured 1960s band, The Monkees. Tork played the dimwit of the band which was ginned up by TV producers to perform a comedy show inspired by the seminal Beatles movie, “Help”. It’s a popular misconception that Tork couldn’t play an instrument, actually having proficiency in keyboards, bass guitar, banjo and harpsichord.

Francois Truffaut – Famous French film director of such considered masterpieces as “The 400 Blows,” “Jules and Jim,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “The Wild Child”.

John Updike – Pulitzer Prize-winning author of several novels, including the “Rabbit” quatrain featuring everyman character Rabbit Angstrom.

Leslie Ann Warren – Nominated for several Golden Globes and an Oscar, Warren started her career as an accomplished ballet dancer, then movied to TV and movies in the early 1960s. Blessed with sultry eyes and a sexy smile, Warren starred in mostly lesser-known fare. I met her once on a flight from LA to New York in the 90s, and she was truly engaging and subtly beautiful.

The Dead (Get a mirror)


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Cards and Movies

jayOf all the forms of magic, I find sleight of hand to be the most entertaining and elegant. Cris Angel performs some very elaborate and mind-boggling illusions as does David Blaine, but I can’t help thinking that many of the big visual stunts – walking on water, levitating, slamming someone’s cell phone inside a beer bottle, separating a woman into two halves – come off with the participation of shills. Nothing against the illusion, but involving actors who feign awe at the magic while playing an intimate role in its execution necessarily diminishes the experience.

That is never a concern with real sleight of hand. Manipulation of ordinary objects such as playing cards, coins and balls in the close proximity of uninvolved onlookers is a true art form that demands the highest levels of dexterity and confidence, an ability to deceive, and gift for narrative. And a lot of practice. I mean a lot. To get a sense of the art form and its history, check out the revealing if slightly uneven documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. Ricky Jay is probably the foremost living practitioner of sleight of hand, and his demonstrations and history-telling in the movie are truly fascinating.

I first came across a long-haired Ricky Jay in the late 1970s on HBO specials when a good deal of his repertoire involved throwing cards. I lost track of him until he showed up as a poker-playing con-man in David Mamet’s 1987 psychological thriller “House of Games.” In addition to being a marvel with card manipulation, Ricky – now paunchier and less-hirsuit – showed he was also a passable actor (at least under the direction of Mamet and the staccato dialog of his tight screenplay.) One of my favorite scenes in “House of Games” is when the gang of con-men baits a trap in the form of a high-stakes poker game for uptight female psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse). After a long night of poker, the action comes to a showdown between a hard-boiled Ricky Jay and a well-dressed bookie named Mike (Joe Mantegna).

Margaret doesn’t realize that Mike and Ricky are on the same team, so when Ricky’s club flush beats Mike’s trip aces, she finds herself in a pickle of the gang’s design. But nothing is as it seems – watch the movie to find out what happens next.

Anyway, card games have been used often in the movies as an entertaining device to establish the essence of the characters – are they venal, manipulative, foolish, idealistic, vengeful, greedy, desperate? – as well as the relationships between characters. High-stakes confrontations across the felt? A natural for the movies.

Here are a few of those that left a memory for me:

The Sting
Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) is just aching to take down evil gangster Doyle Lonegan – or was it Liniman? – in a brace game of five card draw. The whole plot of the movie depends on it. And Gondorff delivers. After running roughshod all night over the hifalutin gamblers on the 20th Century Limited out of New York City, Gondorff finds himself in a final showdown with Lonegan (Robert Shaw) for maximum stakes. Just the situation he’s been waiting for; but Lonegan has stacked the deck against him. No matter. Gondorff anticipates Lonegan’s parry and somehow turns four threes into four jacks. The look of incredulity and then panic on the face of Lonegan’s henchman – the guy who stacked the deck – is marvelous.

Honeymoon in Vegas
This rather contrived and moronic movie centers around a Dickhead (Nicolas Cage) who gets in over his head in a high-stakes poker game with a smarmy wax-museum piece called Tommy Korman (James Caan). Anyone in the audience see that Dickhead (Ok – Jack Singer) is being conned – even as he sits on a straight flush. Tommy is betting hard into Jack’s “unbeatable” hand, but Jack lacks money to call. So he offers an unusual wager: a weekend with his new wife Betsy (Sarah Jessica Parker) and all her deliciousness. Tommy accepts. Jack lays downs a straight flush to the jack. And (non)surprise – Tommy lays one down straight to the queen. Later on, back at the hotel room, Jack and his wife have a difficult conversation. “Do you know what a straight flush is? It’s like… unbeatable.” says Jackie boy. Betsy remarks, “‘Like unbeatable’ is not unbeatable.”

Cool Hand Luke
After severing a bunch parking meters, a drunken Luke is expeditiously incarcerated for vandalism in a southern-fried prison where he and his fellow convicts are assembled regularly into a chain-gang that whacks weeds and slings gravel along dusty roads amid the sopping-wet humidity of the Mississippi afternoons. As the log-line for the movie aptly says, “A man refuses to conform to life in a rural prison.” Whether it involves eating 50 hard-boiled eggs, tricking an escape, or playing poker – Luke is always cool. In a game of five card stud where a dollar is a huge bet, Luke continually kicks a buck against another con who has a pair of sevens showing. Although Luke has nothing more than a king on the table, he successfully bluffs out a guy with an ace, and after some back and forth, he bluffs out the man with “the Savannahs.” Dragline, a lifer played by George Kennedy who won an Oscar for his portrayal, flips over Luke’s hand to reveal … nothing. As Luke says drolly, “Sometimes, nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”

Choose Me
This quirky movie boasts a cast of misfits and curious characters, the biggest being Mickey (Keith Carradine). He is introduced as a possible psychiatric patient who seems to have a host of credentials: poetry professor, professional photographer, spy, truck mechanic in East Germany. But are they real or just a figment of Mickey’s active imagination? He’s also quite the ladies’ man. He makes a move on saucy Pearl (Rae Dawn Chong) who helps him get into a high stakes poker game – where her jealous husband Zach happens to be among the players. Mickey raises big against Zach who consults his astrologer for advice on calling the bet. Upon glimpsing Zach’s hand the astrologer exclaims, “No! Not with the moon in Pluto.” Zach folds, Mickey rakes, and a relationship between the men is established.

Cincinnati Kid
The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen) is a young poker savant who captures the attention and interest of an older card shark named Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson). There’s the expected machismo and philandering, and the ending is rather contrived (see the clip below). But my favorite scene is a poker game dealt by a brassy dame called Lady Fingers (60 year-old Joan Blondell). This is a high-stakes game yet as Lady Fingers deals, the audience can see the faces of the cards as they fly off the deck several inches above the table. Comical. Hard to imagine a pro like director Norman Jewison let that slide.

Like a one-trick pony, Joe Pesci clones his “Goodfellas” character to become Nicky Santoro in Martin Scorcese’s blockbuster “Casino.” The performance he gave in “Goodfellas” when he beat the shit out of a wise-ass Mafia made-man is revived in “Casino” in the famous pen-stabbing scene. Almost identical. That same sarcastic fury comes later in the movie when Nicky can’t catch a card at the blackjack table. The abuse he heaps upon the weary dealer who continues to give him face cards (aka. “paints”) is withering – and it’s especially hilarious when Nicky angrily throws a card at the dealer and it sticks to his shirt.

I read Ben Mezrich’s book, “Bringing Down the House,” the true story about a crew of MIT students under the tutelage of a math professor who implement a combination of meticulous card value assessment and costume chicanery to win big at Vegas blackjack. The movie based on “Bringing Down the House” – “21″ – bears virtually no resemblance to the story in the book. It’s a contrived mess that makes virtually no sense. Still, the allure of high-stakes card games helps keep the audience quasi-interested. The part I find most fascinating though is the egregious continuity error in the beginning of the film where Professor Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) demonstrates the gist of counting cards. First some of the cards are face up. Then the same cards are face down. Then some go missing. Jesus. I guess that was a metaphor for the entire mess called “21.”

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