Monday, March 31, 2014

Six Songs

Last week, my friend Gordy asked for six of my favorite musical theater songs.
I mean, just six? I can bring down most shows to just six tracks I really love, but the entire musical theatre canon to just six of my top songs? That's a little more daunting. I decided to handle it in a somewhat reasonable fashion. I took one song from a set of relevant or influential composers or composer teams.

I tried to find a song pretty characteristic of the best of their work, while also being something I enjoy listening to over and over again. I also enjoy if they can operate somewhat outside of their context too (adding to their replayability).
I also tried not to think about it too much.

So, here are Six of My Favorite Songs Throughout Musical Theatre.


They Can't Take That Away From Me
- George & Ira Gerswhin, originally for Fred Astaire in the movie Shall We Dance.
It has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Rod Stewart...And might be most recognizable to musical theatre fans as the parting number of Bobby Child in Crazy for You.
It's a sweet, simple tune: an opening verse (that's omitted from the musical), two A's, a bridge, and one final A. Straightforward, bittersweet, and incredibly catchy.
It's hard to top the Gershwins at their best. I don't have much else to say about it, except it's really lovely.
"Still, I'll always, always keep the memory of..."


Heaven on Their Minds
- Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice, for Jesus Christ Superstar.
If you can find Tony Vincent singing it, that's awesome too. But the Carl Anderson version is the definitive one of course. There's a Ben Vereen one floating around too, but he doesn't quite have the same edge as Anderson, so I prefer Carl's.
I know Lloyd Webber's musicals are a bit of a joke but there is something incredibly entertaining about most of his shows.
Superstar is of particularly interest. I find it to be one of his more ambitious compositions (I'm also a huge fan of Evita, overall) and it is one of those stories I find endlessly captivating. This is the opening number, and Judas is voicing a lot of the frustrations he has with Jesus, but it's almost a reflection of those frustrations shared by people who are slowly turned off by religion, who question their faith.
Plus, Anderson's vocal is just ridiculous.
"We are occupied! Have you forgotten how put down we are!"


King of the World
- Jason Robert Brown, for Songs for a New World.
The difficult part about the song is that it's from a song cycle, with no discernible plot or any real plot overarching the songs together.
But JRB's piano accompaniment and (on the album) Ty Taylor's vocal is absolutely relentless and mind-blowing.
The song itself is beautifully visual. The rough idea is some sort of person wrongfully imprisoned. But one of the fun things about Songs is that we aren't always sure if the narrator is totally reliable or not. If this singer is on the up and up, then the song conjures up these images of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, even Jesus Christ, particularly on the line: "Father said to me: "You are everything, that you see in your dreams.""
But like I said, it is pretty open to interpretations. I've seen versions of the song where by the end the singer ends with getting executed or even committing suicide. Often, there's not a whole lot of room for interpretation, so I appreciate Songs for allowing its performers to create something truly unique with each version.
"Once upon a time, I had tides to control...I had moons to spin, and stars to ignite..."


All That Jazz
- John Kander & Fred Ebb, for Chicago.
I mean, Gordy put it best: This number's just about sex. The musical is musical theatre's glamorization of sex, booze, and violence. It glorifies all of it in its gritty goodness. This opening number says it all. There's a lot of familiar opening notes to songs out there. Jazz is arguably one of them.
"Find a flask, we're playing fast and loose."
  

I Was Here
- Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, for The Glorious Ones.
I know there are quite a few songs I could choose from in terms of Flaherty and Ahrens: Ragtime, Once on This Island, Seussical... (Okay, not the last one...)
But this song just beautifully sums up the struggle and passion of a life lived in the entertainment of others. There's so much richness in the lyric, and the accompaniment is beautifully sweeping.
"I've begged and I've bullied for any small chance to perform."


Someone in a Tree
- Stephen Sondheim, for Pacific Overtures.
From the granddaddy of them all. Now, I could've picked so many of his songs.
I almost went with Finishing the Hat, or even Move On, because Sunday in the Park with George surpasses music, ascends beyond art and beauty.
But there is just something about this song, this underrated, possibly little known song (Pacific isn't performed that much. ...I mean, Sunday in the Park isn't that much either, to be fair) is so pleasing, so engrossing.
A song all about a person's place in the universe, how every little piece is part of the bigger picture. It's sentimental, emotional, and something about how Sondheim strings together harmonies and melodies is just so moving and compelling.
I cannot say enough about this song, because it's always been one of my absolute favorites, one of the first songs that really made me tear up when I first listened to it. And knowing it's Sondheim's favorite composition of everything he's done in his immortal body of work makes it even more special.

"It's the fragment, not the day.
It's the pebble, not the stream.
It's the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.
Not the building but the beam,
Not the garden but the stone,
Only cups of tea
And history
And someone in a tree."


Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Oh, you're a comedian? Do you ever watch _____?"

God bless people who try to relate to you in their limited capacities to do so.

I've found it's become easier to tell people what I do for a living is 'comedian.'
'Actor' makes me feel like I've failed, because I work in this theater where I don't act.
'Writer' hasn't made me money yet, so I sadly wouldn't call it my living.
The most money I've made in my life is making people laugh.

Most people are not comedians by trade. And thank god for that. But we all have a tendency to try and connect to people, despite not necessarily knowing much about each other (but I'll save that much larger discussion for another day).

Whenever I say I'm a comedian, people's frame of reference for comedy is generally TV shows.

But two shows really get my goat when people ask me about my comedy.

Two and Half Men and The Big Bang Theory.
And if you couldn't guess that those were the two shows coming, ya dumb.

A close third is King of Queens, but really only because I find the wife on the show an insufferable character who has no redeeming qualities.

According to Jim, 8 Simple Rules, shows like that are just bad.
The questionable part about Two and Half Men and The Big Bang Theory was/is their popularity.

John Crier and Charlie Sheen are both immensely talented. You can make fun of Sheen all you want for his mind-boggling meltdown, but he's fantastic. Jim Parsons, plus most of that cast is equally talented. I don't discredit them at all.

But the shows are just poorly written. The multi-cam sitcom is not as effective as it used to be. Even relatively good shows like 2 Broke Girls and How I Met Your Mother are extremely hackneyed, with only one saving grace in their storytelling devices to redeem them. Plus, their casts are pretty stellar as well. Everything's cliched, ground tread upon in the exact same way as before, and the shows bring nothing innovative to the table. They are as formulaic as they can be, with predictable characters. And not even characters, they're actually the broadest stereotypes possible.

Sheen and Crier for all their charisma are just doing the play-boy/shut-in dynamic. It's Odd Couple, it's Ross and Joey from Friends, it's Will and Jack from Will and Grace. All better examples of that formula, all predecessors. Ashton Kutcher's tenure on the show has done nothing to improve it, only maintaining a tired status quo.

As for the half-man in the title, Angus T. Jones...is pretty horrible.
It's highlighted simply by the fact that three superior child actors are on camera for Modern Family.
No one cares about the kid in sitcoms, so to make them such a focal point can be problematic. They have to be stellar and Jones fails to step up.


As for The Big Bang Theory, I actually have a deeper problem with the show. I mean, not only are the portrayals of its starring 'nerds' supremely outdated, frankly at this point, they're downright insulting.
The show consistently treats them as these completely alien specimen, while the audience laughs at their inability to function within a normal society, we are supposed to laugh at their isolation and lack of understanding, while all the metaphysical jokes are made at their expense.
And not that I care anyway, because the nerds are all such broad caricatures that I cannot identify with them.

Friends, while admittedly a broad sitcom as well, at least had characters that, while not identifiable, were wittier, charismatic, and a little more realistic (I mean, as far as sitcoms go, anyway). Ross, the nerdiest character on the show, ends up being a bit of a butt monkey, but he doesn't wind up any more horribly than Joey, the playboy, does most of the time. Friends was also one of the last great multi-cam sitcoms to go off-air (although Will and Grace went a couple more years; Frasier ended the same year as Friends; Seinfeld had been gone before the millenium.)

Community features Danny Pudi as Abed, who is a character in the same vein as the nerds of Theory, but he is a fully fleshed out character, who, while on this spectrum, functions much more easily within the confines of the community college. There is marvelous heart to Abed, there is a sense of reality to him. These two features are lacking to anything Jim Parsons says as his character Sheldon.

Theory's premises are just as tired and lacking as anything on Two and a Half, but the jokes are arguably more painful. My real hope is that people can come to understand these two shows represent a pretty awful common denominator in the world of comedy. That there are beautiful shows to witness, like Arrested Development, Scrubs, Parks and RecreationCommunity...There are more serious, nuanced, and layered comedies, like Louie, Wilfred...Shows that are trying to destroy and reconstruct the sitcom format: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Workaholics, Brooklyn 99, Episodes...
And there are even shows that are not quite there, they are imperfect works of progress with tons of potential, cancelled before their time to really shine, but would've been better with more time or more direction: Happy Endings, BFFs, and New Girl (it's getting much better than when it started).

But I think what it boils down to is that The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men just aren't funny, and the fact they're both running longer than superior shows is too bad. Few of the punchlines are punchlines per se, and the editor for that canned laughter should be getting overtime and a half (men).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

#ThrowbackThursday - 206 Films

The initial onset of this Facebook note was a list circulating the 'net supposedly listing the 206 films Steven Spielberg required whomever was going to work with him to watch. While it turned out to be untrue, the list was an intriguing proposal.

What 206 films would you want someone to have seen? Maybe they're not working for you, but a prerequisite to be present in your life, you wanted them to experience 206 films, what films would they be? 

These were the 206 that I came up with, mostly out of gut reaction. It's not a best-of, or even a favorites really, it's just 206 films I've seen that mean something to me, that I would like to share with you, and maybe they'll mean something to you too?

At the end, I also pull out just 6 of them to talk about briefly. Those 6 would make my Top list of all time if I had one, for sure.

Here now:

The 206 Films

COMEDY
Duck Soup
A Night at the Opera
A Mighty Wind
Annie Hall
Cool Runnings
Clue
Ghostbusters
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Home Alone
Mean Girls
The Big Lebowski
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Billy Madison
Some Like It Hot
Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn version)
The Sandlot
Saved!
Stripes
Ace Ventura
Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls
A Christmas Story
When Harry Met Sally
Love Actually
A Prairie Home Companion
Wedding Crashers
Back to the Future
Back to the Future 2
Beetlejuice
Bring It On
Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels
Dogma
Mars Attacks
Mighty Ducks 2
Miracles
Noises Off
Sister Act 2
The Birdcage
Tootsie
Wet Hot American Summer
O, Brother, Where Art Thou?
Monty Python's Life of Brian
A Fish Called Wanda
The Terminal
The Ten
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze
Waking Ned Devine
The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain
The Ladykillers
Fargo
A Serious Man
Parenthood
In Good Company
Away We Go
Pleasantville
Big Fish
Gosford Park
Ghost World
Chocolat
Little Miss Sunshine
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

DRAMA
Finding Neverland
Closer
American Beauty
Trainspotting
Shawshank Redemption
Searching for Bobby Fischer
Black Swan 
Garden State
Casablanca
The Social Network
The Squid and the Whale
What Dreams May Come
The Godfather
The Godfather Part 2
The Kids Are All Right
Dead Poets Society
Saving Private Ryan
No Country for Old Men
Awakenings
Field of Dreams
Grand Hotel
The Notebook
The Prestige
It's a Wonderful Life Chinatown

ACTION
(People tend to die and that's the main selling point)
GoldenEye
The Man with the Golden Gun
Goldfinger
Sin City 
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The Forbidden Kingdom

SCI-FI
(Ooooooh....Space....or Science)
2001: A Space Odyssey
Dark City
Inception
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Star Trek: Insurrection
Star Trek (The new one)
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
The Matrix
Metropolis
Jurassic Park
 
FANTASY
(Ooooooh....Opposite of Space....AND Science...So, Magic. And...horses.)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Jumanji
Hook
Mortal Kombat: Annihilation
The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers

HORROR
A Nightmare on Elm Street
The Shining
Dawn of the Dead (Snyder's remake)
Saw
Saw 2
Scream
Se7en
The Hills Have Eyes

WESTERNS
The Magnificent 7
True Grit (Jeff Bridges/Matt Damon)

MUSICALS
Singin' in the Rain 
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Little Shop of Horrors
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Strictly Ballroom 
Hello, Dolly!
Mary Poppins
Moonwalker
Peter Pan (with Mary Martin)
An American in Paris
A Star is Born
Chicago
Grease
Puttin' on the Ritz Royal Wedding
The Wizard of Oz
Camp
Center Stage

FOREIGN
Hero
Kung-Fu Hustle
The Chorus
The Lives of Others
Pan's Labyrinth

BIOPICS
Chaplin
Man on the Moon

CRIME/HEIST
(We cheer for bad guys and that's the main selling point)
Bonnie and Clyde
Ocean's 11 (Clooney/Pitt remake)
Catch Me If You Can
GoodFellas
The Usual Suspects

SUPERHERO 
The Dark Knight
Batman Returns
Superman
Spawn
Hellboy 2
X2: X-Men United
Iron Man

POST-APOCALYPTIC/DYSTOPIAN FUTURE
(Everyone's dead because of zombies...or aliens...or the government)
28 Days Later
A Scanner Darkly
Children of Men
Blade Runner
Zombieland
The Noah
On the Beach

ANIMATED
The Rescuers Down Under
Aladdin
Beauty and the Beast
Toy Story
Toy Story 2
Toy Story 3
The Simpsons Movie
Wall-E
An American Tail
Spirited Away
My Neighbor Totoro
FernGully
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Iron Giant
Treasure Planet
9
The Brave Little Toaster
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Land Before Time
The Illusionist
Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave

ANIMATED mixed with Live-Action
Space Jam
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
The Pagemaster
Cool World

Movies by Quentin Tarantino
Pulp Fiction
Inglourious Basterds

Movies by M. Night Shyamalan (That weren't horrible) 
Sixth Sense

Documentaries by Michael Moore (That weren't horrible)
Bowling for Columbine

Shakespeare Adaptations 
Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh's version)

Movies Where America Kicks Ass
Independence Day

Movies I Watched (and you should watch) While High
Fight Club
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Memento 
Adaptation
Donnie Darko
12 Monkeys
Mulholland Drive
Inland Empire
Insomnia
Pi
Naked Lunch



Sixth Sense - When this movie first came out, it was truly a shocking ending. I don't think much of the rest of the movie holds up anymore now that we all know the ending. It's a curiosity on this list, because it's one of the few that lacks the replayability factor.

Singin' in the Rain - Quite possibly the perfect movie musical, and one of the best movies ever. It's hard to be both. What makes musical movies in this day and age difficult is that no one is doing what Singin' in the Rain did. Much of the music existed prior to the film, but it was presented in a new storyline, likening it to Moulin Rouge. But most modern movie musicals are straight adaptations of existing stage musicals. The formula is mostly hit-or-miss. But if they were able to find a way back to this template for a movie musical, we could have some awesome releases in the future

Moonwalker - It's not a movie in the most traditional sense of the word, but it's certainly one of the ones that inspired me absolutely. Years later, despite all the fall from grace, and the scrutiny he was under from the media, he was an inspiring dancer and artist. It's hard to match the genius of The King of Pop, and some of the sequences in Moonwalker are truly indicative of that.

The Simpsons Movie - It's amazing just how good this movie is. If you've ever been a fan of the series at some point, there is no reason to not have seen this movie, yet I talk to so many who haven't. It shows some of the best character development of the characters in the series in years and there's so many gags that are possible within a film realm that aren't in the television series.

Noises Off - Not a lot of adaptations exist of plays that are so successful, but for me (and I'm certainly in the minority with this) the Noises Off adaptation works so well. I in fact love this version. Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Carol Burnett, Michael Caine... The cast is just spectacular.

Sister Act 2 - I was lucky to grow up in an era where sequels had potential to be better than their original movies. Everyone remembers this movie; it's got the more memorable numbers, the young cast is interesting (Lauryn Hill, Jennifer Love Hewitt), and it's a funnier story to me. You also got Austin Powers 2, TMNT 2, Terminator 2, Toy Story 2... And they're all pretty great.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Hairspray: The Cast That Almost Was


It was 2007 and I feel like people weren't expecting that much from the movie adaptation of the stage adaptation of the John Waters film Hairspray, but as more and more names were attaching themselves to the project, it became rather exciting. It was the first musical of the year (we had a couple more months to wait before Enchanted, Across the Universe, and Sweeney Todd) and Dreamgirls had just earn Jennifer Hudson an Academy Award. It had also managed to get the sour taste out of our mouths from 2005's overwhelmingly disappointing Rent.

But Hairspray originally felt like it was going for that same demographic. A mainstream success with serious undertones and themes of racial tension and integration, not too dissimilar from Rent's dealings of coping with fatal disease and loss, while aiming for a demographic too young and immature to grasp these concepts. But where Rent shied away from these things, Hairspray managed to embrace it much more. Despite being a colorful, happy-go-lucky world, there was still the race relations and changing times that were at the heart of those carefree 60s.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say, basically is Hairspray was not only a better musical adaptation, but a better movie overall. There are parts I love to defend about Rent, but I'll be honest, I love shitting on it way more.

What's interesting to me is how available the alternate casting options for most of the roles are. Imagine the movie that could have been. Not necessarily that it was a better cast, it's just amazing to think about how close some people were and how the entire movie experience would have been different. Hashtag: What if Will Smith had played Neo instead of Keanu Reeves?

They don't have much on Zac Efron, but I have to imagine a Jonas brother had to be in the running at some point. Considering how well he did a few years later as Marius at the O2, I'm kinda glad he didn't. (Although, to be fair, he did play Efron's part at the Bowl a year after his Les miserable disaster.)
Other than that, I can't think of anyone else who jumps out for Link Larkin.

As for Seaweed, he's essentially the only teen character who isn't cast as a movie star. Elijah Kelley's pretty masterful in the performance. Corbin Bleu (also of High School Musical like Efron) played him at the Bowl (opposite Nicky boy Jonas) but, and this is weird to say, Corbin's not black enough. Corbin passes for Dominican. No really, I saw him in In the Heights when he took over for Lin-Manuel. He's awesome, but for a movie it just doesn't work realistically enough for the racial tension that's at the heart of the movie.

Brittany Snow makes for a wonderful Amber Von Tussle. The alternate that I've heard was Hayden Panettiere, whom I love. She was just starting Heroes around this time, plus she's a bit tomboyish for the role. Although she plays the mean girl quite well. Speaking of Mean Girl, would Amanda Seyfried or Rachel McAdams have sufficed? Probs.

Boy, it's weird watching Amanda Bynes in this movie now. It almost makes me uncomfortable. She looks and feels so out of place in a musical the whole time, so there's that too. Diana Degarmo, an American Idol runner-up (who also took over for Eden Espinosa when BKLYN went on tour) was Penny at the Bowl, and I think she would've been a pretty great choice, but they did end up casting the teens as all known film entities, Elijah Kelley and Nikki Blonsky herself being the real exceptions. I'd probably throw Alexa Vega into the role. She's a far better singer, far less awkward.

Marsden beat out Wolverine for Corny Collins. I'm kinda glad Hugh Jackman isn't always the go-to guy for movie musicals, because he can be just kind of bland (there's nothing particularly wrong with him in Les Miserables for instance, but there's also nothing terribly special about him either). Marsden nails the personality perfectly. I don't know how Jackman would've done, but I have a feeling it wouldn't have measured up. But you know who did it at the Bowl and would've been lovely? John Stamos. (Yes, I do love that man way too much for a heterosexual male.)

It seems there was only one choice for Velma, and Michelle Pfeiffer is pretty damn perfect. Cameron Diaz is still a few years off from having to succumb to a role like this (although she's Hannigan in the new Annie, so take that as you will) and maybe the only other awesome take would've been Meryl Streep. Could you imagine Meryl Streep as Velma? Holy shit.

As for dopey dad Wilbur Turnblad, we all know Christopher Walken pretty much nails the role. Of the names mentioned as alternates though, Billy Crystal I'm especially sympathetic toward. That would've been cool to see. This may be a weird choice, but I also would've enjoyed another Dan Aykroyd turn as a dopey dad.

Motormouth Maybelle was played by Queen Latifah in the movie, and who can think of any other person who could've done it, except maybe Missy Elliott? There's Jennifer Hudson, but I don't think the Dreamgirls schedule would've lined up. Well, surprised to say Aretha Franklin was considered for the role. Imagine. The Queen of Soul as Motormouth? Woof.

And of course, John Travolta rounds out the cast as Edna. There were a lot of names rumored to be up for the part and I'm torn between Tom Hanks, who would've brought some charm (and he's done Bosom Buddies) and Robin Williams, also another actor we'd get to see in disproportionate drag again. I think I'd take Williams if it was Crystal as Wilbur, and Hanks if it was Jim Broadbent, who was also in consideration for Wilbur.

So,
Blonsky as Tracy
Williams as Edna
Crystal as Wilbur
Meryl as Velma
Aretha as Maybelle (Just imagine for a moment that Velma/Maybelle catfight as performed by these two.)
Stamos as Corny
and Alexa Vega as Penny.
Elijah Kelley, Brittany Snow, Zac Efron, and Allison Janney are all perfect where they are.

I'd also just want every other minor role to be a cameo by someone from a movie musical. Kevin Bacon is the station manager. Harvey Fierstein is a teacher. Julie Andrews shows up somewhere, because who cares, it's Julie Andrews.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Game Show Scandal

I found myself watching two documentaries on two of the most famous game show scandals in history. In fact, besides the "original" exposure (which prompted the making of the movie Quiz Show) these two are arguably two of the biggest and most memorable.
They were both novel in the fact that no one had ever tried to cheat these systems before.

Press Your Luck was a game show that required minimal trivia knowledge and a whole lot of luck. The modern equivalent is something like Deal or No Deal or something of that nature. There was very little strategy involved (mostly with the passing of turns and what-not, but nothing to effectual to the gameplay) and the Big Board was a seemingly random amalgamation of scrolling screens and roving light box.

Or so it seemed.

Michael Larson. An ice cream truck driver. A sinister looking version of Orson Welles and Marlon Brando. He had a plan. He realized the Big Board was not as random as it appeared. Like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, he saw the patterns. He learned the timing. He spent everything he had to get on the show, and dominated the Board, racking up over $110,000, at the time (1984) the largest payout of a game show, ever.

This documentary, Big Bucks, gives background on Larson, as well as the production crew responsible for the backstage happenings of Press Your Luck.
It tells of the aftermath of his landmark run, the reactions of his fellow contestants and the host years later, and features re-enactments and interviews with his then-common law wife explaining Larson's character.
Whether this is the documentary's intended effect on me or if I just get the same creep factor as his fellow contestants did when they first met him all those years ago, but I could see Larson was not a well-balanced guy. Something was off about him. I also watched his interview from Good Morning America, and there's something really strange about the guy. I'm no expert in behavioral psychology, but I do know weirdos. And Larson was a weirdo.
But.
He was a smart weirdo.
Some of the comments on the documentary on YouTube seem to feel Larson is persecuted by the presentation of this documentary. They feel it's antagonistic toward him and they heatedly defend that he did nothing wrong. I agree and disagree.
First of all, like I said, I don't know exactly the documentary's intended effect, because for me, I don't feel Larson is presented negatively. He's not hyped up as some sort of hustler or a cheat. I do agree it's slightly biased, because they probably wanted him to seem cut off from normal society. But the retrospective segments with host Peter Tomarkin and contestants Ed Long and Janie Litras show people who are completely in awe of what Larson was able to accomplish. The producers and crew that are interviewed throughout seem to have nothing but grudging respect for it.
I do agree that Larson did not cheat.
I find nothing dishonest about what he did. And it's also quite remarkable.
Cheating implies that he altered the system to suit his needs. What Larson did was figure out the system and gamed it to his advantage. He altered nothing. He played by the system's rules. The only difference was he found that the system was governed by more rules than everyone thought, and he had to learn those new rules: patterns, timing, and recognition.
And then he took them for all they were worth.

Does this mean I have fewer scruples about card counters at casinos and what-not? Well, first of all, I think casinos are money-making machines so any hit they take is well worth it to me, if it's come by honestly.
I find no problems with card counting. It's a fantastically difficult skill. There is a flimsy argument that comes from grade school where we say, "Well, if he gets to do it, then everyone's gonna do it, and what fun is that?" But the pure and simple fact is, no. Not everyone's gonna do it, because not everyone can do it. These are all acquired skills. People may have a natural tenacity for math, or for rhythms, or intense focus, but this is not something everyone can do or acquire.
I equate it to people being not allowed to play professional basketball either because they can or cannot dunk, depending on which fits the context of the argument more. It just doesn't make sense.
Again, cheating is only cheating if someone is knowingly altering the system in order to give themselves an advantage.
Larson didn't break into the lightboard, set his own pattern, or fix the light box. He played by the Board's rules. He meticulously memorized several different patterns of movement and played with absolutely perfect timing.
I don't necessarily stretch it to every casino game, but if someone is going to walk in armed with the knowledge of counting cards, then you can put in as many preventative measures as you would like, but you can't accuse him of cheating afterward if all you used was one deck the whole time.

On the other end of the spectrum is this video.
Major Fraud - Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
(I can't embed it here, but it is presented in its entirety in this video, and there's also a playlist where the documentary exists in 5 or 7 ten minute chunks.)

Former British Army Major Charles Ingram had already seen both his wife and brother-in-law walk away with $32,000 each on the British version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and somehow, this dimwitted doofus was determined to walk away with the 1,000,000, by any means necessary.
The plan was so simple, it almost sounds like a joke. It sounds like the premise for a sketch you would write making fun of the terrible ideas people have come up with to scam a show like Millionaire.
The plan was to cough when the right answer was mentioned.
That's it.
Ingram and his wife enlisted the help of one of the Fastest Finger runners-up (who remained seated behind the hot seat throughout the contestant's run) and with his help, Ingram made it much farther into the game than he ever should have been allowed to. He had used his lifelines far earlier than he should have, and he was a blathering idiot throughout the entire run.

Now, the documentary is a Martin Bashir-hosted affair, so take it with a grain of salt. I personally find Bashir dangerously misleading, dishonest, and manipulative of facts presented to him. I disagree with his controversial style and find him far too invasive to be a fair journalist.
I also find a lot of the documentary, along with the first documentary, to be seriously lacking in any sort of behavioral analysis (light as it may be) and any more concrete scientific analysis. They both consist of people saying, "I had a bad feeling," and the latter consists of Bashir interjecting, "Listen for the cough!" (Cough) "There." when the audio has already been manipulated to isolate the cough.
Bashir is making a scandal out of a mole hill and I find it surprising.
I don't disregard this in the way that I disregard Larson's Larsony.
This was clearly cheating. And it was cheating on one of the worst levels imaginable. It was idiotic. It's the equivalent of taping the answers to a test somewhere on your desk or something like that. It's just stupid. But nobody had ever attempted something like this before, and Ingram made it all the way to the million dollar question and won.
Is Ingram an idiot? Yes. Greedy? Absolutely. But is this a documentary exposing what is arguably the laziest attempt at cheating that succeeded anyway, or the unimaginably gross oversight of a terrible production team? I pick the latter.
They had no probably cause? You don't need probable cause to stop the filming of your TV show. You're not the cops. You can do whatever the hell you want. They can stop taping because they don't like what a contestant is wearing, but they couldn't ethically stop them because a ridiculous majority of people thought they were cheating? Please.
The documentary paints the Ingrams as terrible people. By no means are they victims. But the production crew doesn't get off Scott-free. Whereas in the Larson case, all up and down the production team seemed bewildered, but afterward celebrated him, everyone in the Ingram case seems paralyzed by damning evidence right in front of them. And they don't have the slightest reason to be.


Both videos are absolutely mesmerizing, though. Larson is one of the most compelling characters ever, and the infinite depths of Ingram's stupidity is like watching a magnificent trainwreck. In both movies, you'll be asking yourself, "How did he get away with that?" but with two very different, emotionally-charged inflections.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Welcome to The Game

A few days ago, I failed once again at winning The Game.

For the uninitiated, the rules of The Game are simple:
- The point of The Game is to forget you are playing it.
- Knowledge of The Game implies participation. (Reading this entry grants you initiation to The Game.)
- Every time you remember you are playing The Game, you lose.
- You can never stop playing.

Over the years, I've started playing the game with almost all my friends, and as my world has expanded, I've joined in on other people's sessions of the ongoing Game.
The fact is there are no separate playings or different matches, everyone is either playing The Game or is yet to start playing.
It is optional to let other people know you just lost The Game (by remembering you're playing), thereby making them lose too. But I take that option as entirely mandatory.
Periodically throughout my life, I get texts, Facebook messages, even emails (I used to get AIMs and LiveJournal comments too) that would say simply, "I just lost the game."
It always takes me a moment. It always takes everyone a moment. But as soon as it hits you, it frustrates you. You were doing so well. You had moved on with your life. You had comfortably forgotten that The Game was going on constantly around you, because everything in life serves to distract you from The Game. And prior to this reminder, you were winning The Game.
Sometimes, it doesn't take a reminder. This last loss in fact, I was sitting in my room, meditating, and my mind wandered to somewhere far off when suddenly in my mind's eye I saw text that read, "The Game." And shit, was I mad.

I'm still in my "Loser" pit stop, as these past few days, all that's been on my mind has been The Game (meaning I can't reset my clock and begin a new "round.")
I figured I'd write about it now, while I've lost.

A lot of people are not good with games. Some people tend to avoid board games. Or card games. Or whatever. I remember classmates of mine sitting out of Keep-Away. No one wanted to end up being "It" for an extended period of time. The same happens now for me in improv, in a silly warm-up called Bippity-Bippity-Bop. No one wants to be the person in the middle of that circle for an extended period of time. It implies you are bad at the game.
But The Game requires no special skill. It involves only the human characteristic of forgetfulness, something that comes easily to us.
Is there any animal that forgets things, truly? I know we joke that some animals have short memory banks, but key to survival, no animal forgets vital information. I have to believe our sad tendency to forget things comes from a weakening in evolution. <------- Even this last sentence, I paused halfway through it to adjust myself in my chair and forgot the rest of the sentence I had originally wanted to write. A far more eloquent structuring of vocabulary, lost forever in the recesses of my mind.
I don't believe anything is truly ever forgotten. It's not a computer file, that you throw in the Recycling Bin and then empty that Recycling Bin and then a few years later your hard drive crashes so you lose any residual remainder of that file. Your brain holds on to everything. It's just that those connections stop working. Everything settles in a certain place forever, hidden behind certain protocols, be they feelings or songs or scents. Recovering them takes some effort. And most of the time it's not worth the effort. I don't need to remember the top 5 players amongst my friends the last time we went laser tagging, even though I could tell you that information the first three or four days after the trip.
There's just too much happening, and too much that's more important, to be holding on to every little thing. But your brain is a powerful thing. It doesn't run out of room.

But all that serves The Game really well.
Normally, these things would be considered obstacles, distractions, hindrances. But the point is to forget The Game. I'm never sure, but I have to imagine the turnaround for me normally is something like two days. I go right back into blissful ignorance after just 48 hours.

How I wish I was as good at forgetting other things. Painful things. Painful memories. How do those remain so immediately accessible? Why does the computer of my head insist that this folder remain open, running underneath all other programs: my event planner, my work calculator, my daydream generator, my improv engine?

There is something uniquely tragic about The Game.
The fact is, you can't celebrate winning The Game. You can never know that you won, and the game is never finished until there is a winner (or in this case, the least loser).
You will die, having won The Game, and never celebrate. The knowledge alone causes you to lose.
It is the personification of that looming awareness of something you know is there but you cannot acknowledge.

Welcome to The Game.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Best to Weirdest - "I Know Him So Well" from Chess

Chess is one of those musicals that started life as a concept album. And it probably should have stayed that way. Through two different versions that spawned a varying number of variations each, a plot between two Chess world champions competing against each other while international relations and their personal love stories crumble around them has never been successfully strung together into one, cohesive and enjoyable storyline. The music itself though is damn enjoyable, and several songs have enjoyed life outside of the musical, even in mainstream pop.

"I Know Him So Well" is one such song, and also stands apart as one of the only female duets out there. There aren't a lot. (Seriously, without thinking too much about it? I might be able to name ALL OF THEM...: "Take Me Or Leave Me" from Rent, "In His Eyes", from Jekyll and Hyde, "Some Things Are Meant to Be" from Little Women, "What You Don't Know About Women" from City of Angels, "Everyday a Little Death" from A Little Night Music, "I Will Never Leave You" from Sideshow, "Statues and Stories" from The Light in the Piazza, and "For Good" from Wicked. ...I may have missed a couple. But, still.)

Originally, I was going to do this as a Fine, Fine Line post, but, gods' honest truth, I couldn't find a particularly lacking performance of the song.
What I did find though, were increasingly inexplicable performances.

Let's start at the most normal, and arguably a very strong performance from two girls who I occasionally find to be inconsistent. And when I say that, it's not necessarily a critique of their abilities (though some of it admittedly is) it's also that their track record is extremely well-documented. YouTube houses a great many bootlegged video of both these women performing, for better or worse. Idina Menzel and Kerry Ellis are powerhouse voices who may occasionally miss the mark. But here, they shine and prove they are a couple of the best.

The next step is back in 2003's concert, which isn't that weird by any means. It's a pretty star-packed duet, with Julia Murney and Sutton Foster and some of the arrangement is kicked up a notch. It's my favorite version of the song.
I mean, those belted notes where there were none before (Ellis and Menzel's version represents the closest to the original arrangement) are impacting in a way that strengthens both characters. It's a harder find to look for female empowerment songs of rejecting love and they follow through with it. (There's nothing empowering to me about a female character who expresses her rejection and lack of need for love, only to fall in for a different person just because that person is so unexpectedly different from everything before.)

This is where we begin to go off the rails just a little bit. Again, I must reiterate: the rest of these are not "bad" performances. I have no problems with these whatsoever. But, and surely you'll agree with me, they are just extremely strange.
For this, we go somewhere to around 1987 or 1988, (I don't know for sure) but this is a concert with The Voice herself: Whitney Houston, joined onstage by her mother, Cissy Houston.
Whitney is still in her absolute prime here with all her melismatic glory (I have always loved her downward riffs especially) and Cissy, god love her, keeps pace. It's interesting to hear them together, because if Whitney's voice had stayed together and she'd stayed alive, you can see where her voice would end up in Cissy.
It's taking us to church, by all means, though the pacing is a little plodding. Whitney's variations of melody and phrasing are nice additions and I could've done with a tempo change here and there. It feels like a number the two sang when Whitney was a child, even though it's not that old of a song at this point, which makes it strange.
It is just such a strange experience, and I can't exactly explain why. But judge for yourself:

Fast forward to 1999, and cross over the pond, with the British pop equivalent of S Club 7. Imagine if S Club 7 had ever sung a legitimate cover like "I Know Him So Well." That's what's happening here. Steps is a British pop band and their performance here is admirable.
S Club 7 probably never could have pulled off something like this.
Again, there's nothing inherently wrong with this performance. The slightly pop-ified sound and affectation, the R&B-esque in-sync sway back and forth, and the completely unnecessary men acting as bookends for the three ladies in addition to the epic crane shots and foggy backlighting should all be cringeworthy but it's not. The three-part harmony at the end is also a cool little coda.

First of all, I don't understand why everyone comes down so hard on Patti LuPone or any "diva." First of all, there's no such thing as a diva who doesn't have immense abilities to back up warranting that term. If they didn't, then they're not a diva, they're just a bitch. I see all these wonderfully talented and tough ladies do things that are stellar and yes, occasionally what they do is self-indulgent and off-base. But there's only one diva who could pull off such an act of hubris so gracefully.
Barbra Streisand sings this on her Broadway album. She isn't joined by anyone. It is a duet by nature, so who's singing the second part? Why, Barbra Streisand, of course. Yup. There's counterpoint singing and it will throw you for a loop, because it's Babs, IN STEREO.

There's nothing so weird about this next video as the intro: which is performed, instead of a synth or piano, by flute and electric guitar.
John Barrowman and Daniel Boys turn the song on its head. I'm glad no one attempted the lame switching of gender pronouns that always bothers the fuck out of me (anyone see the new Tempest? Helen Mirren plays Prospera. Yeah, was there something wrong with being Prospero? With a girl playing a guy? Because Shakespeare was kinda doing it already, and it's been done for the last 400 or so years in the interim.) So kudos to Barrowman and Boys.
It's a beautiful version, but I do prefer the girls' key that it's in. Also, I love Barrowman, but one little affect he has that I love and hate is on the lines, "Oh so fine.." in echo, he says it more like, "Ah!" and he really digs into them. It's both grating and entertaining.

Now we're more firmly in weird territory. I give you the original number, sung by its original performers Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, in the most decidedly 80s version of this song you're likely to find.
They're wearing shoulder pads, the big hair, the almost exclusively synthesizer backing, the primitive split screen with "cool" cropping... It's all there. It's also so hard to take their emotions seriously when they're dressed in what is essentially 80s stereotypes. If you were going to an 80s party, you'd be dressed as Paige and Dickson.
I feel I have to say it again, there is nothing wrong with this performance. It's so well-sung, these two know the phrasing better than anyone. But it's a funny little glimpse of the past, frozen in time, forever on film.

Speaking of frozen in time, here's a throwback for you: Melanie Chisolm and Emma Bunton.
No?
90s kids will remember them more fondly as Sporty Spice and Baby Spice of the eponymous band The Spice Girls.
Mel C. is the one of the five who has most consistently continued her solo music career, while Bunton has arguably had one of the least successful (unless you count Victoria Beckham, formerly Posh Spice, or more modernly, as Doesn't Sing Anymore Spice). Scary's is a little less scary, and she's been more successful, but her and Geri have mostly been relegated to reality talent show judges.
There's a few different versions of this duet, because it was actually professionally released. The music video is quite an interesting one in itself, featuring Mel and Emma singing in a studio, next to a grand piano, and it's all just a little too precious, ending with a hug.
But I wanted to go with this one, because it's an entirely surreal experience. The camera is filming from behind the audience, which is an odd choice, and everyone's phones are in the air, capturing the song. (I'm pretty sure they were just hoping to see Sporty and Baby make out.)
Sporty's voice is so weird. It's got a strange tone and some of her pronunciations are so wide, it's not a British thing...because Baby doesn't seem to have nearly as many idiosyncrasies. It's a weird choice, but again, I find no fault with the performance. It's spirited and they manage to do a lot with arguably limited abilities, at least in terms of who has sung this song. Still, when I think musical theater, I don't think Spice Girls. So for that, this video has to come in just short of the weirdest videos.

The only thing weirder than seeing two ladies of their era firmly ensconced in a video of that same era, is watching them perform live almost two decades later.
The pantsuits are still weird, but at least Paige and Dickson are much more assured, more comfortable, with showtime experience under their belts. But there's something disjointed about this performance, maybe it's the fact that Dickson seems a little bored, maybe Paige is a little too affected with her facial expressions, maybe it's that the blocking amounts to them circling each other exactly once, but it seems wholly uncomfortable. Also, the set decorations are for Phantom of the Opera. Or the 80s. So there's no recapturing either.

The only male/female version I could ever find of this song, and it's Lily Savage, so...not really male/female at all. It's weird having Dickson sing Paige's part of the song, and the arrangement is entirely rushed through. Add to that, Savage not knowing any of the words anyway, it makes for one of the strangest half-assed performances I've ever witnessed.

And speaking of drag queens, our final stop on this train of weirdness is a shot-for-shot remake of the original 80s music video for Comic Relief, with Peter Kay as his drag persona Geraldine McQueen as Dickson's part, and Britain's Got Talent breakout star Susan Boyle as Paige's part. Yup. I wish I could embellish that description, but that's all you need.
Well, I do want to say, they managed to make Boyle look hideous, and all of Kay's asides and takes to the camera are hilarious.

MADNESS!

Monday, March 3, 2014

The All-Star Presidents Improv Team

The Presidents of the United States have come up a lot recently in our improv shows (could it be because of the February celebration of the Presidents? ...I doubt it.) and I got to thinking about putting a bunch of the presidents on an improv team and having them do a one-night only special engagement, as West Wing Improv. 

For this edition, they're doing a short-form, competitive style match, meaning two four-player teams, one "swing" player, a referee/host, and a "Mr. Voice" who keeps track of the score, plays music and runs lights from the tech booth.

I didn't overthink it, although I originally was going to do straight up Democrats VS. Republicans but decided the teams' "personalities" worked better as mixes. At some point down the line I'll do a super-team that does long-form. They do Armandos, and Lincoln is the monologist. 

TONIGHT'S SHOW:
It's the Continental Congress (the red team) with:
"Loose Cannon" Andrew Jackson
"Roll Over" Grover Cleveland
"The Mouth of the South" Billy Clinton
And your Captain, "The Mighty Redwood" Abraham Lincoln!

VS.

The Founding Fathers (the blue team) with:
James "Lil J" Madison
Barack "Yo' Mama" Obama
Calvin "Cool Edge" Coolidge
And your Captain, Teddy "Rockin' Ready" Roosevelt!

and

Working Swing tonight, playing for both teams:
Thomas "2Bits" Jefferson!

Up in the booth this evening...
Old Golden Throat, Mr. John Kennedy!

And your referee, The General, The Boss, The FIRST First Man of the United States...
"The Man Who Wouldn't Be King" George Washington!


So, the ref is obvious. It had to be George Washington. The only impartial, unbiased opinion would have to be the only of the Presidential men who wasn't part of a political party. Of course, the teams are all intermingled, but you still want someone in the position who inspires trust and confidence. Who better than the guy who gave King George the finger? Or whatever the 18th century equivalent of the finger was?
Favorite 'Points' Line: "Where the points don't matter. Just like Rhode Island in a majority vote."

For Mr. Voice, I had to go with someone whose voice was iconic. I had already chosen the teams, so there wasn't too many left to choose from. We don't really know for sure what any of the Presidents sounded like prior to sound recording, and most of the modern Presidents don't sound all that impressive with just their voices, but who can mistake Kennedy's tone, inflection, and accent? Except for Mayor Quimby?
Favorite "Let's Go" Line: "Let's rock the vote."

The Red Team is a little more visually comical. I think they have the stronger personalities, especially in terms of who might not get along. That's why Lincoln, who seems to be the more level-headed of the two captains, equalizes this team. You have the charismatic playboy in Clinton, and every team needs an asshole, so that's Jackson in spades. I wanted a "big guy", but I thought Taft was too easy of a pull. He still needed to be able to move, so I figured Cleveland, who ran three different times for President, was no slouch. He's also a bit quieter than his verbose friends, so they balance out.
Favorite Games: Forward/Reverse, Good/Bad Advice, Sportscasters

The Blue Team is subtle, more cerebral. That's why the captain is Roosevelt, who is stirring, boisterous, and belligerent. The rest of the team is smart and collected. Coolidge won't say much; I bet he's good at mime work. Madison's small, unassuming, but a wicked wit. Obama is smooth, he's the cool guy on the team. But you can't underestimate him, because he's as intelligent as the rest of the team, maybe even more so.
Favorite Games: Authors, Foreign Film Dub, Pick-A-Play

Swinging for both teams is Thomas Jefferson, who was an obvious choice for me, after I took Washington and Lincoln out of the running for their better-suited roles. Jefferson is eloquent and probably a bit pompous, so he's able to serve both teams really well, fitting in easily with the more word-based style of the Blue Team, while setting up everyone for bits on the more physical Red Team.
Favorite Games: Dimestore Novel, Newscaster, Party Quirks

Thoughts? Concerns? What other group of people should have improv teams?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The 76th Academy Awards, Ten Years Later

Tonight's ceremony of the 86th Annual Academy Awards showcases achievements in film and motion pictures from the last year. We love our award ceremonies, and we love congratulating ourselves. But I've always been of the opinion that these awards happen too soon, or that a "real" ceremony should be held on a later date to commemorate the true test of any film: its longevity.

"Best Picture" is something controversial even when it's handed out, but 10 years later, some choices become even more of a curiosity, and some snubs become even more glaringly apparent. To a lesser extent, an actor's performance may or may not have aged well, although I find this occurs less. "Best Actor" or "Best Actress" is often more indicative of the time's feelings and attitudes, and the affect of a performance is much more immediate and direct. I don't have as much of a problem with these awards being presented at the end of a year. It doesn't mean curiosities don't exist, but I find them to be less so.

My general idea is to look back and see what's up held up from the Academy Awards of the past. We're looking at and examining the 76th Annual Academy Awards and the nominees for Best Picture of that year. And it's quite an interesting one. We take you back to 2003...


Can you believe this was ten years ago, guys?
Can you even recall an Oscar-nominated movie from 2003 other than Return of the King?
That's right, folks. It was one of dozens of years to be called a year of too many sequels, but it was one of the only years an Oscar winner was a sequel. And the only movie that won to be the third part of a trilogy.
And maybe that was the problem.

Did Return of the King win simply as a prize to the entire trilogy? Granted, the trilogy is an excellent series of films. There aren't too many trilogies in the pantheon of the phenomena that function fully as a series and are each entertaining chapters in and of themselves. Some point to the fact that the first two chapters remained generally unacknowledged as evidence to this. Others say it is well-deserved. While I do agree to a certain degree, as a fan of Lord of the Rings, it doesn't feel completely fulfilling to just watch Return of the King. The trilogy feels much more like a single movie, split into three sections for easy digestion.
I guess the question, which is two-part, is A) Is Return of the King the strongest representation of the trilogy, and B) Does Return of the King, on its own, stand up against its fellow nominees and against some of the other big movies of that year?

Let's look at the Best Picture nominees of that year:

The pet project of Sofia Coppola who wrote and directed this intimate semi-love story set in Japan between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Arguably Johansson's breakthrough role, and a great turn from Murray, the movie took home Original Screenplay at the Oscars and the Golden Globes for that year. It also won Best Comedy or Musical Film at the Globes, but the Oscars can be a little hesitant to award a film mostly billed as a comedy (Annie Hall is the standout exception). But is Lost in Translation really a comedy? There's comic moments, to be sure, mostly with Murray dealing with his rather absurd commercial gigs.
It's a lot of silent gazing and body acting, but Murray and Johansson are very compelling. And they manage to convey the endless loneliness of living in a big city that we all feel. Re-watching it last week, I appreciate it much more than I did ten years ago, but it's a rather straightforward movie, despite the stellar casting. There really isn't much script to speak of, but come on, what did Bill Murray whisper in her ear!?

There's not massive appeal to Translation, but women are so rarely represented, so it's wonderful to see Coppola get acknowledgement. (And it takes 'til 2008 for Kathryn Bigelow to win for The Hurt Locker. Not sure why she didn't win for Point Break, because that's quite possibly the greatest movie of all time. And I'm not joking.)
Translation is also beautifully shot and beautifully acted, but I think it's sometimes too much for audiences to confront their own realities presented in a movie form.

No loss here. A beautiful effort, but probably wouldn't have won in almost any year.

Crowe and to a lesser extent, Bettany, are go-to guys for a period piece. It won for Cinematography at the Oscars, and I dunno, I thought Lost in Translation was more beautifully shot. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was shot...like a movie shot at sea.
It's certainly more of a private complaint, but movies on boats make me seasick. I don't actually get seasick, the few times I've been on a boat (because you're insane if you're going out on a boat) but I do when I watch Pirates of the Caribbean, Perfect Storm, anything of that nature.
I found Master and Commander to be overly long and boring. I'll just be honest. I re-watched it last week to talk about it in this post, and I fell asleep. It took me three or four different attempts to finish this movie.

It's too bad, because I like Crowe and most of the rest of the cast, and this movie's just a rare miss.
Also, doesn't it feel like this is the second movie in a series, with that second part of the title? I'm not sure why Cold Mountain wasn't nominated into it over Master and Commander.

Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won for their respective roles at the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Cold Mountain and Mystic River inadvertently run in the same place in my mind (the adjective + geographical feature place), but River is actually quite a good movie. It's dark, haunting, and well-acted. It's surprising for me, because I also haven't been a fan of late-era Clint Eastwood, but this is one of his more thought-through efforts, and it pays off in dividends.

Add Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and Kevin Bacon to a stellar cast.
I'm still not even sure what happened, because this movie fucked with my mind so much. I think this movie of the five had a legitimate run at being Best Picture.




I never enjoyed Seabiscuit, and what's even more unfortunate, is that I just watched Secretariat a little while before re-watching this movie (which, I can't even remember my original viewing of) and Secretariat is a much cooler movie. Seabiscuit is a little too sensitive and sweet for me. It's like a sports movie, where we must feel good by the movie's end, and the odds are so stacked against the protagonists that it's just a foregone conclusion they'll overcome the odds.

A movie has to be a thrilling journey. It has to create some doubt in some way. Even if we know we're headed toward a happy ending, as we usually are in movies, there has to be an effort made by the filmmakers to create some doubt. And there's also a difference between attempting to create that doubt and falling short or just completely failing to try, which is what Seabiscuit is guilty of for me.

On a personal level, I had problems separating this cast in their characters. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper all hold too iconic of a place in my head that they had to do a lot more than they did for me to make me believe their roles in this.

Seabiscuit is essentially a biopic, just about a horse. I don't have a problem with biopics as a whole, but they very rarely capture a satisfying comprehension of the person's life. Also, your main character is a horse. It's my same complaint as War Horse. It's just not a compelling centerpiece to me. It's my larger complaint with animal buddy movies. With the exception of Homeward Bound (which is different, because it's mostly a comedy, and also they have the animals talk...and not in the somewhat disturbing way that the animals in Babe talked) I couldn't care less about animals in movies.
I understand that animals are capable of superior intelligence and I'm optimistic about living long enough to see an era where we can communicate on a sophisticated level with animals (and then dying long before the ape takeover) but I will NEVER accept them as my movie protagonists. I do not agree with their lifestyle.

And what of the rest of the movies that year? Well, like I said, it was a year of sequels, but some of the obvious go-overs not nominated for Best Picture (at least in the final 5, anyway)
Charlize Theron won Best Actress for Monster pretty much across the board, but I guess it's a little presumptive to nominate a whole movie for one person's performance. (Actually, that's my complaint with The King's Speech winning. It's all for Firth and Rush, the rest of the movie is rather bored and dry. So, British.) Both are also biopics, so yeah...
Also, Monster is about essentially no redeeming characters. It's just difficult to get behind.

Cold Mountain was left out of the top 5 but there's quite a bit to enjoy about it. It's certainly a more interesting period piece than Master and Commander (which I'm sure won out for being more visually engaging and cinematic) but Kidman, Law, and Zellweger are all good, it's an Oscar ploy clearly, especially with the stellar supporting cast it assembles.
My dark horse pick for a truly great cinematic achievement that year is this movie, 28 Days Later. I won't cross the line into saying it redefined the zombie genre (because I know...they're not technically zombies...blah, blah, blah...) but in terms of movies like Contagion, just worldwide biological disaster movies, this movie is the granddaddy, and it stands up. The deserted London streets are disturbing (those who've been to London know it's never that deserted) and it's a pretty powerhouse performance by Cillian Murphy. Rarely are these types of movies so engaging and thrilling, and also even more rarely is there such hope given to the protagonists by the conclusion.
Days would've never won, but it's certainly one of the coolest highlights of that year.

As for the sequels, we had a bit of a fixation on our AI superiors: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions made it to theaters that year. Bad Boys 2, X-2: X-Men United (terrible name), Final Destination 2, 2 Fast 2 Furious (excellent name), and Scary Movie 3 and Legally Blonde 2 both killed their respective franchises.
I'm a little curious as to Kill Bill Vol. 1 not at least getting an acknowledgement in nominations, because that was probably the most centrally focused movie of the year.
It was a tough year for Comedy: American Wedding, Shanghai Knights, Bringing Down the House, and this was also the year of Dumb and Dumberer. Although Love Actually and Elf helped make the holiday season awesome.
Speaking of bad movies, Gigli and From Justin to Kelly both came out this year.
I think the only other oversight of the year was Finding Nemo not getting nominated for Best Picture. Obviously, it won for Best Animated Picture, but I hope it's only a matter of time before that category just gets rolled in, because the achievements of animation are amazing, especially following Nemo as a marker. I'm convinced in addition to seeing the next level of animal communication, I will also see an animated movie win Best Picture.

So, final verdict?
I suppose in terms of cinematic politics, it's fair to award Return of the King.
As its own movie, it provides the most action. Gods and Generals came out in '03 as well, Master and Commander had its own combat (the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean came out this year too) but the feel of the battles are just more engaging.
The characters have built a relationship with us over the course of three movies, and they manage to do what The Matrix failed to do, despite developing almost simultaneously, which is create compelling protagonists we care about. It's also something that falls a bit short in other nominated movies of that year: we don't care about Seabiscuit as much as we do about Frodo Baggins overcoming the odds, we don't relate to the loneliness of Murray and Johansson like we do the loss of Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen as Aowyn and Aragorn.

I also do think that movies that are able to make us buy into a world, and not just provide us escapist fluff, but give us something we truly relate and hold to, then we have a superior moviemaking effort on our hands and we must acknowledge that. Return of the King is a stronger movie than both the previous two chapters as well (though Two Towers is my favorite). Fellowship of the Ring is plodding to begin, Two Towers is too brooding but Return manages to find the right balance, without re-treading too much similar ground from the original (like how Return of the Jedi is a flashier re-tread of A New Hope).

It'll be another year before I get to do another post like this. But does anyone remember 2004 in film? Do you agree? Was it Lord of the Rings' year to lose? Disagree? Let me know!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Those Days Are Gone...

YouTube has become a beautiful place for me to search through and see what hidden gems of entertainment past I can find. Having friends of different generations, sometimes I hear famous stories of incidents throughout television, music, or movie history and if I dig hard enough, I can find them.

One such famous incident, is from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where a series of guest hosts had begun rotating in occasionally for the vacationing King of Late Night. Carson kept a cigarette box on his desk and one night, guest host Don Rickles broke it on accident. When Carson returned, he discovered it on the air, and decided to confront Rickles, who was filming his own show next door.


It's worth sticking through the whole thing. Doc trying to appease Johnny and keep him calm serves as an excellent build, then the audience reaction to Johnny saying simply, "Should I go over there?" to his line just before he barges through, "I don't give a damn if they're on the air." Rickles is a master of thinking on his feet, so it's quite a joy to see him a little dumbstruck. And it's really a surprise. I mean, this is the 70s! You can see the camera isn't really set up to film (they switch over to CPO Sharkey's camera's, from what I can tell), Johnny's mic is corded, I mean, this kind of thing just couldn't happen back then. They're genuinely surprised. You can hear Rickles' co-star Harrison Page exclaim, "I don't believe this!"
There's a part of Rickles that must be at least somewhat scared for real, because Carson's temper was famous (ask Joan Rivers) and there's at least part of me that believes Johnny's not having fun, he's legitimately pissed. But he must've known it'd make for some really interesting television. It's a really great moment.


Now, I'm not one to constantly pine for days of old, when entertainers were better, movies and music were more inspired, etc., etc. But there is something really special about going back and watching these little treasures of the past. I think one complaint I do have that I defend as legitimate is that the people who were famous were so distinct. Carson was more than just a late-night host, he was the king of late night. Rickles was the insult comic. You didn't need DeNiro and Pacino, you just needed Cagney. John Wayne ruled the western. Orson Welles. Gene Kelly. Elizabeth Taylor. They were just able to make themselves so distinct. Nowadays, what I feel is more the problem is that everyone is expected to do everything. Exceptionalism is rather frowned upon. Disney Channel stars come out of the star-maker machine with their own TV show, some semi-dramatic coming of age movie, a pop single, and down the road they star in a Broadway show. It just all feels rather mechanical, and everyone is trying their hand at all things, without being particularly outstanding at anything.

But I'll save the distinction of the modern era for another discussion.
For right now, I want to share some of the coolest clips I've come across over the years, from an era so different from our own, you'll sometimes wonder if these people were ever real, if these clips were taken from a world apart from our own.


We start with a clip from The Judy Garland show. This duet gives me goosebumps. It's Judy, who's voice has been somewhat wracked by age and abuse (you can see her visibly struggle through some of the notes throughout) but she is a seasoned pro, and Barbra Striesand, who must be in her 20s here, looks and sounds poised and prepared. The two create such wonderful harmonies and moments, it feels unrehearsed and in those days it very well could have been. They're also just two girls, sitting, with no set and costumes, in front of a live audience, and there's hardly a cut to be found. It's one take. And I guarantee they will hold your attention the whole time.

And speaking of Babs...

This is the complete rendition of the title song from the movie version of Hello, Dolly! There are some who would complain about Streisand's age and look to play the character, but you can't deny that voice and she looks stunning throughout. But hidden in this lovely little throwback number, following an extended dance sequence, is a brief duet between Babs and Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong. At 5:16, coming out of the dance sequence, you hear the two greet each other like old friends. The duet has so many little moments that are difficult to describe but when I hear them, I just mutter, "Ugh. So good." It's barely a minute, but there's few who could make a minute of music so compelling.


Now, I do believe this is from Julie Andrews' show. I was just talking about this clip recently, and I was so happy to find it. Rich Little is a master impressionist, but he can only sing so much. This isn't knocking his talent at all, but look at who he's trying to keep pace with in this clip. First, Julie Andrews, who gets to stand there, look and sound beautiful, while the two impressionists battle it out. Personally, I could just listen to Andrews sing and there are days when I truly miss that voice (one of them being during NBC's new version of Sound of Music, which was, let's say... flawed.) Second, you have Sammy Davis Jr. Now, Sammy was one of my heroes growing up. He truly was one of those guys who could do it all. He was the most talented of the Rat Pack. He could sing, he could dance like nobody's business, and then he managed to pull out these impressions, against Little, who did impressions for a living. It's hard to put Little up against Sammy Davis Jr., who can also sing as all the impressions given. He absolutely nails his fellow Rat Packers, Dean and Frankie. But his best impression in the video is without a doubt Nat King Cole, which garnered a truly shocked reaction from me when I first saw it. Those who know the voice of the King will be impressed too. Little is of course in top form (I love his Goulet the most), and Andrews sounds beautiful. They are wonderful talents, and it's a nice little snapshot of all the great entertainers at the time.



It was 1946 and you had two of the greatest dancers to ever appear on screen together for one time in their career. I could go on and on about iconic dance videos (and I will, at some point) but this is a true rarity. The athletic Gene Kelly and the graceful Fred Astaire danced only twice together in their storied careers, and this was the first. Ziegfeld Follies consisted of a series of musical numbers and comedy sketches, similar to the Broadway series of shows that had been performed throughout the early 20th century. Astaire and Kelly never performed again together in their primes, but they were both wildly successful, (with Singing in the Rain coming out in '52, and Kelly coming out of retirement in '48 for Easter Parade) and their legacies were cemented. This George & Ira Gershwin assemblage is just pure silly and fun, but it's a great showcase for the two absolute best, at the very top of their game.



Speaking of two greats at their absolute best, what can you say about a 15 minute medley of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, the first two First Ladies of musical theatre doing what they best, and singing all the hits they were famous for. I mean, really. What more could you ask for. Two voices like this just don't exist anymore. The absolute control of Martin. The boisterous bravado of the Merman.