Thursday, June 30, 2011

Don't Ban Tracy Morgan From TV. Ban America From Comedy Clubs.

Hey, Offended America.. do you have a moment?

I deny neither your right to be offended by Mr. Morgan's use of the "R" word, nor your admirable desire to see that word disappear from common discourse.

But you walk a very dangerous line by calling for the head of a comic whose utterances were confined to a club stage. Comedy is not always about safely providing chuckles to the masses. Sometimes it's about walking the razor's edge between the safety of what is publicly said and rawness of what is privately thought, however wince-inducing those thoughts might be. Sometimes it's about rooting out absurdity via shock tactics.

Should rape jokes have no home on stage? What about the "N" word? Pedophilia? If so, then, by all means, let's also send brilliant comics like Louis CK, Chris Rock and Lewis Black into therapy as well.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Plagues: Rated G

While not a religious woman, my mother felt that the time was right to host a Passover Seder dinner for our family. It's appropriate, thought she, to give my children an understanding of some important Jewish traditions, whether we "believed" them or not. I agreed.

To give the event a bit of verisimilitude -- separating it from the standard-issue gorge fest that is most family meals -- she and my father lit candles, told the story of the holiday, served a huge meal sans hog or leavened bread, hid the matzah and asked the four questions (in short: why is this night different, why no bread, why bitter herbs, what's up with the double-dip?)

Of course, what would a celebration of Jewish heritage be without some discomfort? That came, with some level of intensity, in the form of the "Bag of Passover Enrichment Toys For Kids," which until that point had been unopened. What spilled out when the drawstring was pulled? Among other things:

  • The ten plagues finger puppets, one miniaturized catastrophe for every little finger

  • The "death of the first born" jigsaw puzzle, featuring a grieving Egyptian mother standing over her prone child

I don't know what's worse, the Old Testament barbarity or its Disneyfication.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser

The new Alice in Wonderland is tedious, poorly staged and unimaginatively shot. In other words, it's another of many misfires from critics' darling Tim Burton. Burton typically has interesting ideas that are undone by his formal inadequacies as a director and a storyteller (among other problems, his scenes are never fluid, always relying on two-shot edits, and his films run on at least 20 minutes too long). But Alice is bereft even of any good ideas, unless you count his tweaking of the narrative from its original "journey of the innocent" to "return of the teen feminist." But even here, the title character is mostly a cipher, blandly reacting to the "wacky" supporting characters who are rendered mostly in cheap, jerky CGI. Worse, Burton's desperation to make the material more "edgy" leads him to paint every scene in grim palettes of grays and plums. Since 3D glasses tend to darken the frame by about 20%, everything is even muddier than intended. You used to at least be able to count on Burton for a florid, lovely-at-the-edges mise-en-scène. Not anymore. As for the rest Burton's oeuvre, it's pocked with similar sloppiness and unrealized possibilities. A closer look at two of his most celebrated films...

Edward Scissorhands.
Arguably Burton's most championed work, the film has a lot going for it. The cotton candy vision of suburbia was quite new in its time, before derivative crap like Cat in the Hat made it cliché. And Johnny Depp's performance remains the finest of his career -- innocence and loss perfectly realized in his pinched, silent-era expressions. Buster Keaton would be proud. But the critical giltterati chose to ignore the embarrassing final half hour in which the neighborhood bully, played with a fat layer of "must-rid-myself-of-16 Candles-awkwardness" ham by Anthony Michael Hall, gets in a deadly confrontation with Edward. All warmth and ingenuity are drained away as Burton hastily solves all problems with a standard-issue bad guy death. What a shame.

This late 80s hit could have been so much better. Burton clearly wanted to get back to the darkness of Bob Kane's original comic book series. But he couldn't completely escape a fondness for the "POW! SPLAT!" campy essence of the 60s television series. The result was a confused mess (as opposed to Christopher Nolan's brilliant films with Christian Bale). Burton got things right with the casting of Michael Keaton and the fetid stench of Gotham City's police corruption. He got things wrong with Jack Nicholson, whose performance went squarely for the Burgess Meredith/Frank Gorshin paradigm. Still, the biggest problem with Batman remains Burton's biggest problem as a director. He cannot stage an action sequence, even a little bit. When Batman takes "flight" or chases down a villain, the scene demands a fluidity and elegance commensurate with Anton Furst's grand guignol production design. Unfortunately, Burton resorts to inset cuts (see Batman lifting off, cut to his feet landing) which effectively kills rhythm and detonates the main character's almost superhuman physicality.

I have far more hope for Burton's next film, Frankenweenie, an allegedly animated remake of his cute 1984 short film. Pure animation, as opposed to the hybrid mess of AIW, clearly relaxes Burton. In this world, where he started his career as a Disney concept artist, he finds the emotional fringes of his characters. That's why The Corpse Bride remains Burton's best work.

Sometimes, it takes the stroke of a pen and the tap of a computer to find the beat of a heart.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Every family has one. The "crazy aunt," now in her mid-40's but clinging to what's left of her youth like a whelping puppy to its mother's teet. Her attempts to appear physically and spiritually in her 20's take on tragic forms. She pitches her voice at a glass-cracking frequency to maintain an outwardly wacky joie de vivre that masks the budding desperation inside. Worst of all, she wears flame red lipstick and caked eyeshadow that would have seemed garish decades ago.

Apparently, the marketing whizzes at Progressive Car Insurance thought: that's our spokesperson!

Have you seen these irritating, ubiquitous spots? Set in an oddly Matrix-like "store," they feature clueless insurance "shoppers" who need the spastic guidance of Flo, the Progressive shopkeeper. Flo alternately educates, pumps up and gently chides them. But instead of comic warmth with an edge, Flo exudes screechy silliness...nothing more.

Even on their own terms, the Progressive commercials don't make a lot of sense. Consider the one where an increasingly excited customer shouts "yes!" after every discount benefit question. It ends with:

Flo: "Isn't getting discounts great?"
Customer: "YES!!!"
Flo (now taken aback by his enthusiasm): "There's no discount for agreeing with me."
Customer: "I got carried away."
Flo" "Happens to me all the time!"

What happens to you? You get carried away...errr... agreeing with yourself? If so, why admonish the customer's enthusiasm if you're guilty of it all the time? Flo (and her campaign) deserve to be dumped in the same advertising graveyard populated by Herb from Burger King and Joe Isuzu.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Nobody Cares

Nobody cares about the "really weird" dream you had last night.
Dreams are completely random images and sounds caused by neuronal firings in the brain. In other words, they are surreal by definition. So, no, your dream was not different or interesting or “weird” (what a ghastly, unimaginative words that is). In fact, the only dream of note would be one steeped in normalcy. And, by the way, your dream also has no deep meaning…at least not in the banal “Intro to Psychology” way you think it does. In the mid-70s, the activation-synthesis scientific theory negated Freud’s ridiculous assumption that dreams are “subconscious wishes to be interpreted.” In the end, a tunnel is a tunnel, a flower is a flower and a murder is a murder.

Nobody cares about your status in FarmVille.
This game allows members of Facebook to manage a virtual farm by planting, growing and harvesting virtual crops and trees, and raising livestock. I don't happen to play FarmVille. Know why? BECAUSE I'M NOT SEVEN YEARS OLD. Even worse than grown men and women playing pretend farm is the fact that they post their minute-by-minute pretend farm status. So in order to get to a worthwhile item on Facebook (few and far between anyway) I have to fight through dozens of messages like: "Deb just harvested her chicken coop and found some Treasured Golden Mystery Eggs, and wants to thank her friends for feeding the chickens!" and "Vicki noticed that her crops are a bit on the dry side because they haven't been fertilized yet!"

Playing children's game all day, eh Vicki? Can't imagine why your "crops" are dry.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hardcourt Rituals

Yes, the NBA's outside shooting continues its decades-long erosion thanks to the steady influx of high schoolers. Yes, the trash talking, shirt popping and chest pounding have grown to epidemically thuggish heights. But we'll save the social commentary for another day and, instead, focus on two much smaller NBA items -- rituals, if you will -- that are teeth-gnashingly irritating.

The Free Throw Gathering.
A player is fouled in the act of shooting. He goes to the "charity stripe." He shoots the first of two free throws. He either makes or misses the shot. Is the ball then immediately returned to him for the second shot? No. First, said shooter must be surrounded by his other four teammates who pat him on the head, back and ass, bump his fists and offer words of wisdom. Why? If the foulee misses the shot, does he really need to be somethered with rhythm-busting encouragement? If he makes it, are congratulations really in order? This is, after all, a completely uncontested, 15-foot shot that professional basketball players should make at an 80% clip. Enough already.

The Swatted Shot Celebration.
Need evidence that we're at the apex of the "look at me" era in sports? Look no further than the state of the blocked shot. There's no denying that the act is a thing of beauty -- stunning leaps, stretched limbs, halted ball trajectory. But here's the thing: unless the ball is secured afterward, the blocker has done his team virtually no favor at all. Bill Russell, the former Celtic great, probably blocked more shots than any other player in history (such records have only been kept since the 70s). But he definitely kept more blocks in play, thus giving his team possession of the ball. Today's shot blocking "specialists" are too enamored with the spectacle of the ball being swatted into the tenth row to worry about such trivial things. Who cares if the other team gets the ball back? I get to wag my finger, roar and watch the crowd salivate!

Battle won. War lost.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Skates + Death + Olympics = NBC Heaven

When the mother of Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette died of a heart attack shortly after arriving in Vancouver to see her daughter's Olympic performance, you knew what was coming: epic pathos milking. And NBC did not disappoint. Consider:
  • Color analyst Sandra Bezic, the queen of pretentious over-enunciation, declaring that Ms. Rochette is both the "daughter of Canada" and the "daughter of the Olympics," is an "incomparably courageous soul," and "made magic on the ice." True, if magic involves double-footing multiple landings.
  • Scott Hamilton, whose voice registers higher than a shitzu's yelp, weeping his way through two days of analysis and stating that this performance was "not about medals." Please. The only way Ms. Rochette would not have earned a medal was if her routine involved urinating on the maple leaf flag.
  • Meredith Vieira, "View" yacker turned Today Show co-host, informing Ms. Rochette that her mother is "definitely smiling down upon [her]." Of course she isn't, for two reasons: 1) the dead do not "live on;" 2) if they did, abusive parents of skaters would still never smile, particularly when their daughters only earn bronze.

Here's an idea: instead of fetishizing death, NBC should, just once, give the public a brief education on the baffling difference between a salchow, toe loop, lutz and axel.