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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Barry Manilow’s Because It’s Christmas — CD Review

It’s that time of year when most of us are going to reach for a Christmas album at some point. Barry Manilow’s Because It’s Christmas offers something a little different than the usual collection of classics. Yes, I said Barry Manilow.

He opens with a nice, soft version of the classic “The Christmas Song.” Nothing special about it, but that is meant as a compliment. It’s a classic, and more artists looking to cover it ought to leave it alone and just sing the song instead of trying to make it their own. Later on the album Manilow throws in 90 seconds of “White Christmas” that was headed down the same road, but is strangely cut too short.

Along with Exposé, Manilow pulls of a jazzy, toe-tapping version of “Jingle Bells” quite well. He has some fun with it without trying to re-invent the song. His unique “Silent Night / I Guess There Ain’t No Santa Claus” is perfect for those of us that won’t have that romantic Christmas Eve we get so tired of hearing about. It strikes the right chord without hammering home the point. “Just Another New Year’s Eve” gets kudos for the same type of reason.

Manilow completely loses me on “When the Meadow was Bloomin’.” It’s a stretch as a Christmas song, which isn’t necessarily bad given the overdone tunes of the season, but, no pun intended, is just too flowery. The title song, though obviously a holiday song, fits the category of too flowery, or soft, as well. But Manilow fans won’t mind it.

His duet with K.T. Oslin of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is the best the album has to offer, and maybe the best version of the song I’ve ever heard. It’s fun, gets away with pushing the edge of corny, and . . . I would imagine . . . isn’t bad for that romantic Christmas Eve those of you having one don’t get so tired of hearing about.

“Bells of Christmas” didn’t do much for me, and his “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” does a slight about face on his earlier good sense of not messing with a classic. He doesn’t ruin it, but it’s not great.

Overall, if you like Christmas music and can get beyond the “but it’s Barry Manilow” thing, Because It’s Christmas is worth listening to.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Christmas Links

Just for fun, and an easy post, I did some hunting around for some holiday links — mostly YouTube. Enjoy!

Enjoy some free free Christmas music while you browse.

A cute page for kids to write Santa or watch him cut a rug.

A so-so Christmas ad from Coke.

The Charlie Brown cartoon never gets old. Neither does the soundtrack.

Sponge Bob will never last as long, but many like him for now.

This creative montage is worth a peek.

Though a cute baby dancing might be a bit more fun.

YouTube let's you see the entire The Grinch That Stole Christmas, or, if you prefer, The Grinch — Homer Simpson style.

I even found a scene from the end of the best version (in my humble opinion) of A Christmas Carol. I even found a couple for the kids, including full-length (I think) versions of Mickey's Xmas Carol and this animated version for older kids.

Finally, keep this one for killing that final half-hour before officially shutting down for the holidays . . . the end of It's a Wonderful Life.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The Break-Up — DVD Review

Maybe I don’t know enough about relationships. Maybe I was too tired and got too comfortable. Maybe The Break-Up is a chick flick. Whatever the reason, staying awake through this film was a battle.

Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Anniston) decide to end their relationship, but each refuses to let the other have their condo. So, they torture each other in an effort to get the other to leave.

This movie never decides what the hell it is. A typical comedy filled with sophomoric humor seems to be what the producers were going for, but the film just wasn’t that funny. Now and then efforts at sophisticated wit fell flat, especially when Vaughn had to give it a shot. The ending suggested drama had been the goal, but if it was someone should get out of the movie-making business.

Vaughn was flat out terrible. He played an uninspired guy with a major case of arrested development. One moment he was “Mr. Cool,” and the next he was trying (and failing) to show depth.

Anniston didn’t do a whole lot for me either. She wasn’t bad, but she didn’t do anything to impress.

John Michael Higgins played Brooke’s presumably gay brother, Richard. He did his best to bring some actual laughs to the film, but his over-the-top performance comes off poorly surrounded by the hum-drum Vaughn.

Overall, I would just skip it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

So, this is YouTube?

I finally joined the masses, and registered at YouTube. I’ve discovered some disturbing realities, not the least of which is that finding us on the trail to the existence described in 1984 is a tad startling. Less dramatically, most of the shows I got to know via reruns that have stuck with me apparently did so because of an attractive actress much more so than for the quality of the show.

I’m also ready to admit I have an addictive personality. I’m pretty sure I’ve found all of the Laverne & Shirley clips with a young Cindy Williams to ogle available, but I keep checking back. Go ahead, laugh, but someone took the time to post Betty, Please and a bunch of others. Actually, only a few others, which kind of sucks. And whoever posted this commercial with Williams wasn't doing it to preserve cinematic art.

Of course, I’ve read that YouTube recently wiped out a bunch of copyrighted stuff. Clearly, someone’s about to try to charge us to watch these clips. I understand that. What I don't understand is how this got to where it is.

YouTube invites you to “Broadcast Yourself.” I can see anyone looking to break into any form of showbiz jumping on the offer. Anyone looking to cheaply market a business would seem into it. But unless I'm way off, that's not what let's people lose hours upon hours on YouTube.

There seems to be plenty of video “blogs,” like this from PianoKeySurfer. There's a ton of exhibitionists, like this a guy who is double jointed. Random looks found
cheerleader bloopers, a funny beer commercial from Denmark, and a PMS survival guide.

I'm sure I could learn to post clips. But why the hell would I want to post a clip, even if it's very easy, unless I'm the guy about to charge everybody to watch these clips? I clearly already have it, and the ability to save it on my computer. Why do I care if everyone else sees it?

I mean, is Adam Sandler's Thanksgiving song something important? I'm happy to have easy access to Phil Collins' Sussudio video, but why did someone post it?

Some things seem to give YouTube a potential purpose. Michael Richards losing his mind and his apology is available, and there's at least an argument to be made that this is a way to expose things without merely hoping the media picks it up. While we all no doubt feel better that “Kramer” will get to the “force field” of racism, I wonder if the connection to 1984 this suggests balances out the positive of offering people the ability to broadcast almost anything.

I'm not defending Richards; only a fool would. But let’s say he was caught on a home video making a racist joke, and the owner of the tape doesn’t like him so he posts it on YouTube. Is there anything wrong with that? Someone sees a guy who is momentarily flipping out on a kid, though no more than yelling occurs, and has the camcorder rolling. He posts it. We still good? The kid next door films you having a spat with the spouse in your own backyard, and posts it. Far-fetched? I think so, too, but it could happen.

Someone has already developed YouTube Theatre, mocking the lame videos, and it’s pretty much the best original video I’ve found so far. So maybe YouTube eventually ends up as little more than the local, more accessible, TV station that only cost a few bucks to get amateur shows on the air.

Having discovered YouTube, I’m guessing there’s no turning back. It’s entertainment, and there’s worse things than checking in on old sitcoms. Now and then, the news will no doubt draw me to a video or two. I’ll pass on the video blogs, bad parodies, and even worse burgeoning “talent” convinced they actually have talent in need of discovering. I’ll also keep wondering why non-showbiz hopefuls post, and if we’re merely helping erode our own privacy that we fear the government is the one stealing.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Blonde and Bitchin’ — DVD Review

Roseanne Barr may have gone back to the first last name we came to know her by for her Blonde and Bitchin’ HBO special, but little else resembled the adorable housewife that made it big by poking fun at a life trying to make ends meet. In a recent appearance on Ellen she pretty much admitted to getting back into stand-up out of boredom, and it showed.

Opening with about five minutes of sucking up to gay people, Barr seemed like a grandmother trying to be cool. There was just something fake about her. At one point her desire to be liked deteriorated into her screaming “Bush blows” and “I hate the President!” Not exactly savvy political satire.

If that originality wasn’t enough, she threw in a few classics such as the joke on old folks multi-tasking by peeing and standing-up. Then there was the old favorite about the ability of men to read maps because we have no trouble seeing an inch as a mile. I kid you not, I saw her do the exact same joke a week later in Roseanne on Nick-at-Nite.

There were a few highlights, though. Maybe I’m a chauvinist, but her women-can-be-bitches jokes were funny. She also had a solid bit with the audience toward the end.

When all else failed, Barr just sort of dropped in an F-bomb or two . . . or 10. She was even repeating words at times as if the punch lines would be funnier the second time. They weren’t.

Despite an audience that seemed to be paid to clap at the mention of her old show, Barr never approaches the quality of that show. Long before her awkward attire is explained with a nightmarish disrobing that wasn’t R-rated but just not fun to watch, you’ll be screaming, “This sucks!”

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The Departed — Movie Review

When there are chuckles throughout the theater during the climactic scene of a film where three guys are brutally shot to death, something didn’t work. The Departed didn’t work.

A Good Fellas for the new millennium, The Departed pits an undercover cop, Billy Costigan, working the Irish mafia in Boston against a dirty cop, Colin Sullivan, assigned to take down the crime boss he’s actually working with. Eventually, Sullivan is assigned to find the police department leak (which, of course, is him) that keeps helping the mob boss, Frank Costello, steer clear of the investigation. As his attempts to keep that investigation leading away from him fail, bloodshed escalates.

At first my biggest problem with the film was keeping Constigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Sullivan (Matt Damon) straight. As the film deteriorated into a typical mob movie — everybody dies, and the mobsters mostly hang out and extort the locals — it became the least of my problems.

The violence simply became absurd. Call it realistic if you want, but it seemed to be all about shock value. Even that stopped working after a while, leaving at least the audience I was with amused at the ridiculousness of the number of people getting “whacked.”

Damon and DiCaprio were decent, but the big names in this film just couldn’t save it. Jack Nicholson, playing Costello, seemed like a shell of himself. Martin Sheen was solid as Captain Oliver Queenan, but for me it was just plain odd seeing “President Bartlett” tossed off a building. Mark Wahlberg as Sergeant Dignam didn’t do much for me.

I would say the fatal flaw of the film is that there’s never much reason to care about the characters. Constigan was really the only sympathetic figure, but he’s never really enough of a focus to help the film overcome its flaws.

The Departed goes on too long, which is especially cruel with its weak ending. It’s just not that good.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Seeking Signs of Life from PWDs

I think I finally figured out why haven’t followed through much on my attempt to write more about life with a disability on The Casual Critic. Every now and then it occurs to me that the internet should be the ultimate equalizer for people with disabilities, and I troll the web seeking to truly connect with others living life with a disability.

It takes about an hour before I am ready to abandon the subject for another six months or so. I’m never quite sure why, except for the sick feeling I have in my stomach.

I usually start at the New Mobility message board, which reads like someone wrote down dialogue in a high school cafeteria. Then I’ll check for some news on people with disabilities, only to find search results filled with stories on legal issues. Eventually, I’ll find an agency or two looking to help people with disabilities conquer the world, as long as they are paid oodles of money by some government agency “supporting” the “client” who must unquestioningly follow the same prescribed plan that fails time after time.

Recently, I found this ridiculous article in New Mobility that suggests the unemployment rate among people with disabilities “. . . still comes down to, do you really want to work?” Not sure whose ass this moronic author is kissing, but he clearly has no clue about life with a disability. In a 3,400-word story, Jeff Shannon never once brings up prejudiced employers, useless advocates, or a toothless Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 34 years I don’t think the central fact in my life has ever changed. Life with cerebral palsy means never truly being a full member of society. For all the so-called progress made by people with disabilities, the fact is we are still the most discriminated against minority in society. It seems to me that the biggest reason for this is that we are simply too diverse.

People who become disabled view the world differently from those who were born with a disability. Those with speech problems face prejudice others cannot comprehend, while those centered on major health issues have little or no concern for employment issues.

There is no sense of unity, not even a hint of a truly unified “movement” among people with disabilities. Each group has its unique issues, and we spend all of our energy squabbling with each other about useless topics like politically correct speech.

I’ve spent the better part of this year attempting to tie The Stores at Royal Steele to the right charity, garnering barely a nibble of reply. I can’t even get groups to forward my promotional e-mails to their members.

Whining? No. More like wondering. Wondering if we’ll ever have blogs talking about every day life with a disability without getting bogged down in medical or systematic issues. Wondering if the disability community will ever be moved to support each other’s business ventures, artistic efforts, and the like. Wondering if government funded advocates will ever realize that, whatever their primary focus, enhancing the sense of a true disability community should be part of what they do.

Sadly, it seems like I’ll never stop wondering.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Michael Bublé — CD Review

Michael Bublé’s self-titled album is one of the few albums since the turn of the century that gets the dwindling music fan in me to make a point to play it apart from the “shuffle” of my collection. He brings life to songs most of us in our mid-30s have only heard bastardized on commercials or when the old folks are around. As we become the old folks, he’s making the transition a bit easier.

I can probably offer the most knowledgeable opinion on his cover of Lou Rawl’s “You’ll Never Find Another Love,” a song I’ve heard plenty in my life. He offers a soft version, which probably helps him avoid competing with the legend. It’s ok on it’s own, but I’ll admit I’d take Rawl’s version over it. “The Way You Look Tonight” is also familiar to me enough to say the original is better but Bublé certainly doesn’t do the Frank Sinatra’s classic a disservice.

Bublé does a great job with “Fever,” giving the quirky song a kick few could get out of it. Yet, his cover of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” reminds you that sometimes not trying to do too much to the original (if I’m remembering correctly) is exactly the right thing to do. In the same vain, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” are well done songs that offer perfect examples of the singer’s stereotypically-described yet uniquely silky voice.

“Summer Wind,” “For Once in My Life” and “Come Fly With Me” remind me of the little I’ve heard from Sinatra. Bublé manages to bring Sinatra to mind without sounding like a guy trying to mimic the legend.

The album is rounded out nicely with songs that I’m sure I’ve heard before, but can only really judge on Buble’s versions. “Sway” will make you move, if you’re so inclined and maybe even if you’re not. “Moondance” is an energetic remake of the Van Morrison hit. “Kissing a Fool” lets Bublé show off his ability to slide from soft ballad to forceful lyrics and back again. “That’s All” is very soft, and probably my least favorite on an album I enjoy plenty.

As I wrote this review I kept thinking Bublé seems like a great ramp up (and eventual weening from) the annual Christmas music barrage we’re all headed for. Maybe I’m getting a little better at these music reviews, as Bublé actually does have an album of holiday classics — Michael Bublé/Let It Snow.

If that works for you or you’re looking for something different from most of what finds its way to radio, Michael Bublé is definitely worth listening to.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Politics As Usual

It’s that time when we are bombarded with commercials telling TV viewers about all of the horrible things politicians do. Ironically, these ads are paid for by other politicians, most of whom have surprisingly little to say about their own deeds. The phone also rings a lot more than usual these days. Sadly, it’s not because I’m getting more popular. Election day is coming, and apparently a lot of people want my vote. They have no idea how much they’re wasting time on me.

I’ve never been very motivated politically, but I recently became even less so. A rare jaunt into political discussion crystallized my distaste for such topics. A comment posted on the Daily News’ “Attytood” blog by Will Bunch sparked almost 200 more comments from wannabe politicos with nothing but party speak to spew.

My post responded to Bunch’s criticism of President Bush’s immediate response upon being told that a plane had struck one of the Twin Towers. “On the second anniversary of 9/11, in 2003, I wrote a story in the Daily News that, among other things, mentioned that Bush had spent at least five minutes reading "The Pet Goat" in that Sarasota classroom. It was an indisputable fact, and yet I received hundreds of emails from readers, many asking if I would be fired for reporting such a simple and inconvenient truth. When Michael Moore showed the actual footage in "Fahrenheit 911" months later, much of the nation was shocked to learn for the first time what really happened that day.”

I had been on Bunch’s blog before, so I wasn’t totally unprepared for what ensued when I posted the first comment: “Would it have been better to usher the President out in a mad rush, which would have been for show only, and traumatize a bunch of kids? Moore's film was nothing but a bunch of cheap shots. The President deserves plenty of criticism, but not for this.”

Within 90 minutes I was being bashed by people who clearly thought they were privy to my inner-most thoughts. Another check two hours later showed little change in the fervor of the comments referring to me in less than glowing terms. While my biggest disappointment was, and still is, that I’ve never generated such passion on my own blog, I noticed something far more distressing.

I was amazed at the number of people convinced they now knew my world view. My favorite was Jennifer, who wrote: ". . . sorry, you can't have it both ways. Either these Republicans are the only ones who are tough enough to "protect" us, or they're softies who are more worried about "traumatizing" a classroom of kids. They can't be both."

The funny thing was, as I pointed out, that I never said a word about Republicans in my first post. I was genuinely stunned that the discussion had broken down strictly along party lines. But the more I thought about it, my shock turned to utter disgust.

I’ve always known that even the rare uncorrupt politician was all about his or her party affiliation. It’s their life-blood, the money train. But to see those in the real world who present themselves as politically involved, something I once considered a quality worth attaining, in need of their registration card to know what to think about a completely non-political event, sheds light on how little hope there is to reform our joke of a political system.

After almost 200 comments were posted on Bunch’s article, I e-mailed the link to a couple of “politically aware” friends to say look how off-based this got. While one piled on citing my supposed lack of logic (shockingly, the friend is a D), the other cited some history: According to him, another D and more of a historian than I’ll ever be, Stalin (not a great person, but certainly a strong leader) could not speak or move for hours after he heard of Germany's invasion of the USSR, and Douglas MacArthur retreated to his bedroom and began reading his Bible when news of Pearl Harbor reached him in the Philippines. (I assume he’s right because I’ve learned not to question him on such matters.)

Armed with this knowledge, or at least what a buddy told me, I still want to know . . . what the hell would've changed had he bolted from the room? In my opinion, nothing.

But that’s not really my point. Bush’s immediate response generates such heated debate because it makes wannabee politicos feel more involved than ever. They can see it all unfold right before their eyes on tape, and sink their teeth into judging every morsel of Bush’s reaction on equal footing with the suits on Meet the Press. They can grab it all with one hand, truly grasp all of it, and say, “This is why Bush . . .”

Don’t ask what the other hand is grabbing.

The thought that Bush had just been told about one of the most horrific attacks our nation has ever experienced, and that maybe his immediate reaction in front of a classroom of young children really doesn’t say anything about him, never gets considered. The Ds rip him, and the Rs defend him.

I used to wonder where “politically aware” people found the time to form their passionate arguments on issues I had only a basic knowledge of. To truly understand why we went to Iraq, the debate on stem-cell research, and other hot-button issues must take hours upon hours of keeping up on the news, I thought. Sure I have an opinion on these issues, but in my heart of hearts I doubted I had the depth of knowledge of those with passionate arguments.

Wrong! I only needed to check my registration card and memorize a few party lines to join the discussion. Let’s see . . . Democrat bad; Republican good. Or is it Republican bad?

So, as election day nears, I’ll admit that I’ll likely take a pass, mostly because in my home state Ed Rendell’s only competition for governor is a former wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I know very little about the local races. I’m guessing Rendell can win without me and I refuse to pull a lever for the party. I only wish more people admitted they weren’t informed enough and would shut up.

At least TV commercials will be a little less annoying and the phone will stop ringing so much in a few weeks.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Friday Night Lights Should be Dimmed

Either I’m getting old or NBC’s new series Friday Night Lights is one of the most obnoxious things on television. Offering a dramatic portrayal of high school football in Texas, the show clearly depicts the pedestal an entire team is put on by a small town with shockingly little acknowledgement of the absurdity of it all.

The star quarterback of the high school team is injured in the pilot episode, and is found to be paralyzed in the second. The show offers scenes of the small town in Texas leading up to game night, from a gathering of ladies, breakfast at the local diner, to the cool kids at the local high school, all of the participants of which are obsessed with the football team. Then, of course, there’s the actual team preparing for the game as if it’s life and death.

The truly disturbing thing about the show is that there is almost no sense that there is something wrong in this situation. It’s not a show depicting kids that are in need of getting a grasp on what’s important in life. The new QB is interviewed mid-week by a local television station. The coach admits that his job was tied to the star quarterback. Local businessmen reach out to make sure the coach understands the importance of the team winning to the town.

All of this blends with typical high school drama targeted at young audiences. Girls offering themselves to the young quarterback, the niave girlfriend of the star QB thinking everything will be perfect again, and squabbles among team members trying to fill the leadership void.

Certainly, other shows are more blatantly over the lines of good taste. But considering the target audience and the fact that the show offers no suggestion that its characters have a strange sense of what’s important, the question of what NBC is thinking with Friday Night Lights begs to be asked. Skip it.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Mary and O’Neil — Book Review

As much as I liked Mary and O’Neil by Justin Cronin, I’ve had a difficult time formulating any real thoughts on this novel in stories. It just sort of brings the reader along for some of the defining moments in the lives of the title characters, definitely pulling the reader in, yet there’s never any sense of suspense or climax. These elements are present, it’s just that the tale stays on a calm, even, and somewhat sad keel from start to finish.

The novel opens with O’Neil’s parents visiting their son at college. While my anal side kept trying to figure out why the heck the book title referred to a character that was no where to be found, the parents’ story was quite compelling. A long-married couple comes to a metaphoric and literal fork in the road, each with their own secret. A marriage that appears rock solid from the outside is filled with unspoken questions and doubts. Their sudden and accidental death leaves unanswered questions for their adult children, Mary and O’Neil.

I think part of the difficulty in reviewing the novel is its focus on O’Neil. His bond with his sister is a rather prominent in the piece, with an entire story focused on her. All of the stories are very good, but the side trips make it difficult to read it as one piece. I’m just not sure why they bothered with the “novel in stories” concept as opposed to simply making it a collection of short stories.

Nonetheless, following these characters through the loss of parents, finding themselves, lost loves, abortion, and more, is a solid and often touching read. All of the characters ring true to life, and the stories touch on many of the ordeals of life.

Starting out in an upbeat mood might help with this somewhat sad set of tales, but Cronin’s debut Mary and O’Neil is not too bad at all.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Brothers and Sisters Doesn't Impress

My best guess is that by the time I’m looking for something other than football to watch on Sunday nights, ABC’s Brothers and Sisters will be off the air. Then again, I’m likely not part of the show’s target audience.

This week’s premiere introduced viewers to the Walker family, as daughter Kitty (Calista Flockhart) returns home to interview for a co-host position on a political talk show. Plenty of time is spent with the children marveling at the long and still openly loving relationship of their parents (Sally Field and Tom Skerrit). Yet, as the adult siblings begin to try to take a larger role in the family business, questions about their father’s fidelity and business ethics abound. The show ends with the father collapsing with an apparent stroke.

I tuned in to see Sally Field who always seems to bring a solid presence to her roles, yet I wasn’t too impressed. She seemed caught between playing the docile wife and the strong-willed woman. I never quite got Flockhart in Ally McBeal, and her politically-charged character wasn’t doing much for me here. Skerrit’s character seemed promising, but it looks like he was just there to set the stage for a drama about a family that’s just lost its patriarch.

It’s tough to judge a drama series on its pilot with so much “introducing” going on. But this show just seems like it has more drama than it knows what to do with. A show with one scene in which the estranged mom and daughter pretending to reconcile while dad looks on as a person waits for him on the phone for a conversation that begins with him angry that he or she called him at home simply needs to cut back. Throw in an Iraqi war debate, a gay family member, and an uncle helping dad cover up something, there may be a bit too much going on.

Football widows and those of us who will be looking for something to watch on Sunday nights in January may find Brothers and Sisters serviceable. But only watch it for fun while looking for something better.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Studio 60 Starts Strong

A powerful opening launched the premiere of NBC’s Studio 60, which just might help stave off the irrelevance of broadcast television for a while. Not quite the replacement for the golden days of West Wing, which the network has hinted at all summer, the first episode suggests it’s a lot closer than most would have thought any show could come.

A behind-the-scenes look at a weekly sketch comedy show, Studio 60 opens with executive producer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) finally snapping over the watered-down version of the formerly cutting edge show now entering it’s 20th season. Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the newly-promoted president of Studio 60’s fictional network NBS (National Broadcasting System), brings back director Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and writer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry), previously fired from the show, to save it.

Plenty of sub-plots will keep this show going, but the truly engaging aspect of the show is that it may actually take on the issues facing television. Sadly, it looks like Hirsch’s character is not a regular on the show, but his rant against T.V. was superb. Finally calling out the idiotic junk targeted at early teens passed-off as “reality” T.V. and networks that cower to the religious right, among other things, he is rewarded with his ouster.

Perry and Whitford are both predictably solid leads in the show. Perry’s character has a past with a star of Studio 60 complicating his life, while Whitford’s character is a recovering addict fighting a recent relapse. Both have stepped into new roles after becoming known in long-running shows, Friends and West Wing respectively, with no problem.

Timothy Busfield plays the control-room director who allows Mendell’s rant to go on. His character was always one you wanted more of on West Wing, and the trend appears ready to continue.

Peete and Steven Weber (who plays Jack Rudolph, chairman of NBS) didn’t do much for me. D. L. Hughley plays a star on the sketch comedy, Simon Stiles, and may be the best minor player on the show.

The one nagging problem with the pilot was the immediacy with which Tripp and Albie were hired. Trying to recreate West Wing-like drama, the subject matter just didn’t call for everything happening in one night. If they leave that alone, and truly challenge what’s currently going on with T.V., creator Aaron Sorkin and producer Thomas Schlamme seem to have made Studio 60 a rare T.V. show worth watching.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A 9/11 Suggestion

I used to pass a sign every time I left home that simply read, “9/11 We will never forget.” It was a home-made job hammered into a lawn. I was impressed when I first saw the sign as it was almost three years after the day the Twin Towers came down.

It was barely a month after I moved out on my own for the first time when a buddy at work said someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. Some idiot in a bi-plane, I figured. Hours later, the office having been closed, I watched the horrifying images alone in my apartment.

I remember wanting to go back home, curl up in my old room, and have it all go away. Of course, I didn’t, at least partially because I knew I had to go to work the next day, and didn’t want to be bothered packing an overnight bag.

Later in the week, or maybe it was the following week, I read a passionate letter to the editor from a woman chastising football fans for wanting their favorite sport back. She went so far as to suggest the sport should never return, her anger somehow letting her believe any sort of “play” would dishonor the victims.

I didn’t lose anyone on September 11th, nor even know anyone who did. So, maybe I’m not qualified to offer opinions on the subject. But, right from the beginning, I noticed an almost defiant call from everyone to “never forget” that seemed odd.

While everyone, it seemed, put a flag on their car, I refused. I knew the day would come that the flag would get old, or torn, or battered, and putting on a new one just sort of wouldn’t happen. Then, I wondered, what would that say?

Everyone was telling each other how this time things would be different. Things had changed forever, we vowed. We had been attacked at home, and we were more united then ever. Most people wondered why we hadn’t attacked someone, anyone, by the dawn of September 12th – myself very much included.

We were nicer to each other, it seemed. We’d let people pull in ahead of us on the road, hold an elevator for others, and were much less apt to lay on our horn in traffic at some guy just trying to get to work on time.

Five years later, things have in fact changed forever, but in none of the ways envisioned. We’re more fearful, less trusting, and even September 11th and the security issues surrounding it are a familiar political volleyball.

The sign I used to see is gone, along with the flags on every car. I’ve read at least one suggestion that this lack of open remembrance is a failure of some sort. That seems as odd to me as a flag on every car.

I’m sure this will be just one of millions of posts on 9/11 today, many of which will offer bold, grandiose ideas to show just how American we are. At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, I still don’t get how a flag on my car or the like proves I care about the tragedy that occurred that day or my country.

I’m rather hot-headed, I’m told, so I may still be the wrong guy to offer the following suggestion. But it seems clear that we were attacked because others hate us. So, instead of waving an American flag, maybe we could prove we remember by showing each other some kindness, like by waving a guy into traffic whose just trying to get to work on time.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Invincible — Movie Review

It’s been a while since I heard an audience clap at the end of a movie. While I’m still not sure why people do that — who exactly hears this appreciation? — Invincible was deserving of the smattering of applause it received.

Vince Papale does the impossible, and makes the Philadelphia Eagles after attending an open tryout. The bartender from South Philadelphia survive’s training camp, and lives his dream of playing for the hometown team.

I was worried that Disney attempting to depict the fans of Philly was a disaster waiting to happen. An opening scene in the notorious 700 level at Veteran’s Stadium without even the sister of the F-bomb — freakin’ — being dropped only heightened my concern. Some weak male bonding scenes followed, including pick-up games with referees, but nothing disastrous.

Action sequences were surprisingly well done, but there were too many slow motion shots of Papale (Mark Wahlburg). The cold shoulder treatment Papale got from the NFL vets was done well, too. There were also plenty of funny moments during the open tryouts.

There was also a solid potrayel of Papale feeling some pressure, or possibly guilt, as he made even 1970s NFL money while his buddies and family struggled to make ends meet. I’ve heard some suggest that the love interest and relationship with his father were overplayed, but I thought they were fine, especially for a Disney film. The father telling his son he was his new favorite Eagle was a nice moment, and the girlfriend sending him a New York Giants shirt while he was at camp was cute.

Of course, I kept wondering what had really occurred versus when the literary license was put to use. There’s no way Papale called an audible on the climactic play. I also wanted to know more about why Dick Vermeil was hired late in the off-season and what really prompted the open tryouts. (Plenty of NFL teams stink, and don’t hold open tryouts). What I could’ve done without was one more reference to Philly fans booing Santa.

If you’re looking for a feel-good film, Invincible is worth watching. If you’re an Eagles fan, this is our Rudy, and you can’t ask for more.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Vineland — Book Review

It’s quite possible that growing up in the ‘80s makes reading a novel that takes jabs at the decade hard to appreciate. It’s also possible that Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland is a meandering, at times long-winded novel from (or at least about) a hippie that never got over the revolution his generation so desperately longed for.

Zoyd Wheeler has raised Prairie as a single parent into her teenage years. Living on disability checks through a twisted arrangement with the government, Zoyd — and Prairie — are finally forced to face his past, which forced her mother, Frenesi Gates, into hiding. Twists of fate lead Prairie through a maze of folks that knew her mother and the cause she fought for.

I first came across this book in college, and can’t say I got a whole lot more out of it the second time around. The number of characters with their own stories, or histories, detailed in the novel makes staying focused on the original story being told difficult at times. There is also a sense that everything is building to a climax of eminent importance, not only for the characters but bringing along with it some sort of profound insight into society. Yet, ultimately, the revolutionary movement they were looking for has the backbone of a bunch of people rallying against the government for the sake of rallying against the government.

The closest thing to a comment on every day society seems to be the agreed upon existence of a massive conspiracy being perpetrated by the government in which television is meant to distract people from societal ills. Ironically, Prairie discovers her mother through the abundant use of film the young Frenesi produced to capture the revolution. Certainly other commentary is offered on how “the man is keeping us down,” but nothing that equates to anything beyond one individual or group working the system.

Ultimately, Frenesi’s disappearance surrounds an affair with the “bad guy” working for the government to infiltrate her particular band of revolutionaries and the death of the their leader. Symbolic, no doubt, of the suggestion that the government stops at nothing to control us, it just took too many roads to get there for me.

Vineland has finally prompted me to adjust my scale for the first time in quite a while. I’m giving it a non-recommendation of not that good. It’s good enough not to skip, but won’t broaden your horizons nor entertain you.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

When the Levees Broke — Review

Spike Lee’s effort to offer the “definitive” story on the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, When the Levees Broke, fell short of the mark. While offering a decent summary of the events, the documentary (that premiered on HBO over Monday and Tuesday nights for more than two hours each night) went on too long and the predictable Lee slant suggesting that racism made the disaster worse leaves anyone with an objective eye scratching their head.

Ten or 20 years from now the summarizing of events may have more value than it does today. Sadly, the numerous montage segments of dead bodies floating in flood waters and other horrific images may also have value down the line, but are simply too familiar right now to have much impact. The attempt to offer the flavor of New Orleans’ musical history through seemingly staged parades was not only awkward, but considering the length of the film causes some serious “watchability” issues.

The interview heavy format struggles to keep viewers interested. It wasn’t until the second night that any emotion is evoked from the viewer as Lee follows an elderly woman back to her home after Katrina. Other stories, including a man forced to leave his mother’s dead body at the Super Dome, were sort of lost in all of the other interviews.

Certainly, Lee brought out plenty of worthwhile information. A computer-generated simulation of a category 5 hurricane called Pam that predicted devastation for the Gulf area went ignored. Cops were among the looters in the days after the disaster. A form of marshal law in one local parish, which refused entrance to those trying to escape the devastation.

He documents the incompetence shown by the Bush Administration in its response to Katrina. To be fair, there wasn’t much balance in this coverage, though I can almost give Lee a pass here as President Bush’s incompetence is well documented.

Lee does not get such a pass on his coverage of race in the affects of the hurricane. He allows people to suggest that whites were rescued before blacks without substantiation or rebuttal. The evacuation process is actually compared to the breaking up of families during slavery. He allows assertions that the levees were actually blown-up to flood the Lower Ninth Ward.

While showing the anger of Katrina victims is a worthwhile pursuit, allowing allegations like these to stand alone was simply weak. This was followed-up with a barrage of how bringing blacks back to New Orleans is critical, as if only blacks need to be returned home.

Lee offered a sad picture of unscrupulous businesses profiting from Katrina and a government bogged down in bureaucracy slowing the recovery. Yet, positioning this as racial issues hurts the film. For many non-blacks (including myself) who can testify to the fact that business and government screws us, too, the assertion no doubt leaves many wondering how a natural disaster became a racial issue.

Overall, When the Levees Broke will have some value as time passes. A good edit job would give it plenty more.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Yours, Mine and Ours — DVD Review

Romantic comedies rarely offer much in the way of suspense, or, for that matter, plot. Viewers pretty much know “the guy gets the girl” in the end, and hope for a few laughs along the way. With an emphasis on few, as in few laughs, Yours, Mine, and Ours is no exception.

High school sweethearts Frank Beardsley (Dennis Quaid) and Helen North (Rene Russo) find each other again after each has been widowed for years. Their first chance meeting occurs while both are on dates with others. Shortly thereafter, a second not-so-chance meeting at their high school reunion ends with the two married. Her 8 kids and his 10 are less than thrilled, and eventually have little trouble exposing the fact that the straight-laced Coast Guard Admiral and a laid-back handbag designer may have a few differences they should have considered before marrying in a rush.

Never really a bad idea, eh?

The older generation will have to forgive me for thinking of this as an updated version of The Brady Bunch. (Don’t worry, I realize it’s a remake of the 1968 Yours, Mine and Ours, I just never saw the original.) There’s even a live-in maid, though instead of a dog the family has a pet pig.

The storyline wasn’t much better than the old sitcom, either. The kids eventually realize that, instead of fighting each other, becoming allies to break-up their parents — and, therefore, being rid of each other — is a better plan. (Ok, so they’re meaner than the Brady kids.) Of course, once the plan works, a few regrets settle in.

To be fair, this was a Nickelodeon production, but even the kids will want more. There’s just nothing that stands out. Russo and Quaid are fine, but the kids are fairly nondescript. Andrew Vo, as Lau North, comes the closest to being memorable playing a sassy, decorator-type in a little kid’s body. But I think there were just too many kids to allow even his solid performance to shine through.

There’s definitely a chuckle or two, but no hearty laughs. It also moves, possibly too fast early on, and isn’t very long so no one will get restless before it ends. If you don’t expect too much from Yours, Mine, and Ours, you can watch it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Guess Who? — Movie Review

Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac star in the not-too-funny, but not-too-bad Guess Who. A remake of Stanley Kramer’s 1967 drama Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, I have to guess this story of interracial romance worked much better as a drama. I never saw the original, but the remake (billed as a comedy) just wasn’t very funny.

Percy Jones (Mac) is not thrilled when the boyfriend with a great job — which he knows because he’s done a background check — that his daughter is bringing home turns out to be white. Simon Green (Kutcher) doesn’t help things much when he starts telling lies meant to impress Jones. Their relationship gets stranger and stranger, and Green’s lie of omission about quitting his job to fiancée Theresa (Zoë Saldana) threatens to make the whole thing mute.

There was plenty of talk in the DVD extras about going beyond the racial component of the story. The filmmakers actually accomplished this with tension between Jones and Green that was based on a lot more than race. The problem was that they kept going for the laugh and breaking the story’s momentum.

A strong early scene shows Jones grilling Green on his lack of experience with playing sports. It was a big, imposing father giving his daughter’s boyfriend a hard time, though a definite racial undertone was present. Pushed hard, Green went with a lie about NASCAR to get Jones off his back. If it ended there, it would’ve been fine. Instead, they kept going back to it for punch lines.

Another scene attempted to tackle the issue of racial jokes. Green stumbles into having to tell some “black jokes.” It was just so awkward that the potentially poignant scene is destroyed.

When the humor was put aside, Mac and Kutcher had some very strong scenes. When the wife (Judith Scott) and girlfriend/daughter end up ticked at both of them, they find ways to connect that aren’t sappy or phony. Saldana and Keisha Jones helped the film overcome the comedy label a bit with strong performances.

Somewhere between my worth watching and just entertaining, I give Guess Who? the latter, lesser rating.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

The Beach House — Book Review

The Beach House offers up exactly what would be expected from a best-selling “thriller” — a light read with a few not-terribly-surprising twists, and an over-the-top ending. It’s nothing readers can sink their teeth into, but works well enough if you’re looking for something to take to the beach.

Jack Mullen, a law student in New York City, looks to expose the truth about the death of his brother, Peter. Helped by a group of devoted friends, a wily ex-judge grandfather, and, of course, an eventual love interest, Jack runs up against a town-wide cover-up. Eventually, he risks everything by going up against his own law firm. Throw in a glimpse of the rich life, a poor vs. wealthy battle line, along with a sex scandal, and you’ve got James Patterson’s second offering with Peter de Jonge.

The biggest problem here was predictability. The opening pages make it clear Peter is murdered, Jack instantly suspects this fact the minute he hears of his brother’s death, and nothing ever causes him to waver. The only real question becomes why there’s a cover up and how Jack will prove it. (Without giving anything away, the key word is “will” because there’s never any doubt about that particular outcome — and if I have given anything away, well, you’re just not paying attention.)

So, all that was left were the inevitable twists. While a few were inventive enough, the fact that one of them is a sex scandal was just plain weak. Ultimately, the resolution is so absurd it has very little impact, and the lack of consequences faced by the “do-gooders” who have gone well passed any legal boundaries pushes things into the ridiculous.

Take The Beach House to your own vacation spot, and read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Failure to Launch — Movie Review

I’m almost sure Failure to Launch was dubbed a comedy. In fact, it had to be considering how many punch lines were delivered badly after being set-up from miles away. The only thing more obvious than the oncoming “jokes” was the ending of the movie.

Matthew McConaughey starred as Tripp, a clichéd thirty-something single guy with a slight twist — he still lives at home. While he thinks milking his parents (played by Kathy Bates and, for reasons that escape me, Terry Bradshaw) adds to his cool-guy persona, they disagree. So, they hire Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), an “interventionist” who helps guys like Tripp essentially grow-up (and move out) by pretending to be their girlfriend.

Things eventually get complicated when one of Tripp’s buddies falls for Paula’s roommate, who spills the beans. Fearing Tripp has been through enough considering his fiancée died years ago, they let him in on it. Things unravel from there.

It was as if the producers figured out that the film wasn’t working as a comedy, and made up the twist with the fiancée on the spot. A young African American kid, Jeffrey (Tyrell Jackson Williams), whose sort of in and out of the film hanging out with Tripp, turns out to be the son of the fiancée. For more than half the movie Jeffrey’s presence is unexplained.

Aside from that, the whole revelation about Tripp’s past changes the tenure of the film — but not enough. It’s not as though a drama breaks out. Besides one touching scene between mother and son, which is mostly about the mother’s relationship with the father, the revelation is merely used as a device to move the film along.

The secondary relationship between Tripp’s buddy and Paula’s roommate, apparently meant to enhance the hilarity, is just goofy. Even with all of these flaws, I could’ve given this film a passable “watch it for fun while looking for something better.” Then I was forced to look at Terry Bradshaw’s naked ass.

Excuse me while I shudder. Again.

Failure to Launch is aptly titled for all the wrong reasons. It sucks.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

North Country — Movie Review

North Country offers a fictionalized version of the story behind the first class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit in the United States. Certainly an important story that deserved to be told, the movie just didn’t offer much that truly stood out.

When word gets out that the local mine is hiring women, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) decides to ignore the warnings against it and applies for a job offering significantly more than the single mother of two was making. Along with a hand full of other women, she endures everything from insults to threats to attacks from her male counterparts at the Minnesota mine. Even her father, who also works at the mine, wishes she had passed up the better pay. Despite everything, Aimes decides to fight back.

I don’t know if the story was too predictable, there was too much other drama in Aimes’ life, or what, but there was little to get revved up about with this movie. The harassment was real and constant, but I just felt like the men were losers from an area that was probably behind the times. (The film was set in the 1980s.) They were too easy to dismiss (for viewers, of course), as opposed to truly wanting them to suffer the consequences of their actions. In fact, most of the plot lines equated to men treating women badly. The same message over and over simply lost its impact.

The one exception to this was the lawyer, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), who pushes Aimes to get the other women to join her in a class-action suit because it was the only real chance to win. While it was good to see Harrelson in a regular-guy role, the character wasn’t quite enough to offer the movie needed depth. Aimes’ father, played by Richard Jenkins, eventually wakes up and supports his daughter. But, again, it just didn’t offer enough balance to film.

Possibly another problem was the location of the film &mdash the Minnessota mines. It’s such a specific locale and lifestyle that connecting to the situation was difficult. There wasn’t enough to relate to.

One of the DVD extras showed interviews with the real women of the lawsuit, and their reactions to the film. A rare worthwhile extra, it put more of a human face to their struggles.

While telling a story that needed to be told, North Country struggles as a film. You may want to watch it while looking for something better.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Comic Opening Eyes

I stumbled on to The Last Comic Standing last week, and was amazed to finally see a person with a disability on prime time television. Even more shocking, it wasn’t just someone in a wheelchair who otherwise looks normal. Josh Blue, one of the comics, has cerebral palsy complete with slurred speech and spastic motions.

I felt like one of the many black people I’ve heard talk about watching TV years ago, and waiting all week to watch that one show they found with a black character. I couldn’t believe there was finally a guy with CP on television!

A quick search of the internet revealed plenty of discussion on Blue, some disheartening, but discussion nonetheless. I was reminded that the last person on primetime TV with CP was on The Facts of Life for maybe one season — in the ‘80s!

I was also reminded (not that I needed it) that prejudice is alive and well. My favorite comments were from the idiots who try to mask their prejudice by being “honest enough” to raise the question of him possibly getting the sympathy vote. It never occurs to these people that the question instantly enters their minds because they’re incapable of just judging him as a comic. Other dumb comments were on the level of “how many CP jokes can there be?” (Gee, do fat comics doing fat jokes get asked that? Or black comics doing race jokes?)

The real question was quite simple — was he funny? To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed by the little of him I saw on the show so far, although he was ok. Then I found some of the earlier clips of him on the show from YouTube. The guy is at least the third best, behind the black guy and the one who won the roast.

But, the bigger point is, he’s on the show and people are getting to see a real guy with CP. People are discussing him and his disability. People are getting to see that we exist, can do things — sometimes better than others — want success, and on, and on.

Go ahead, roll your eyes. Then think about what the discussion would be like if the first [fill-in your group] in two decades appeared in primetime.

Regardless of what happens on the show, Blue has done something important and deserves our applause. Fifteen years ago a statement like that would have made my stomach swirl. Then I faced the ignorance of society day after day with my own CP. I’m just now starting to truly realize that guys like Josh Blue help erode that ignorance, even though others who are “honest enough” to worry about the sympathy vote, sadly, never seem to fade.

Monday, July 3, 2006

1776 — Book Review

David McCullough’s 1776 details the efforts of those who fought with General George Washington during the year that the 13 colonies declared their independence from England as the United States of America. While not a page-turner except possibly for those fascinated by the intricacies of the Revolutionary War and strategies of battle, this book offers plenty of insights into the most celebrated year of our nation’s history for the non-history buff.

The book actually opens toward the end of 1775 with King George III addressing Parliament about the “rebellious war” in America. With that starting point, McCullough offers a balanced look at how the war was viewed on both sides of the ocean. As someone with barely a high school textbook knowledge of the Revolutionary War, I found it eye-opening to read accounts of the war as anything less than a noble cause.

To see how the Declaration of Independence was basically scoffed at by England, though it makes perfect sense that it would be viewed with contempt, was interesting. I never really thought about how the whole war, which the British viewed as a nuisance at first, appeared to the “other side.” McCullough showed quite clearly that the men now held in such high regard by the United States were seen as incredibly unpatriotic and disloyal by their former countrymen in England.

In fact, the book’s ability to offer the casual reader (or casual historian) different perspectives on commonly held beliefs was the true value of the book for me. The mental picture many have of patriotic Americans marching off to war for the blessed cause of the suppressed colonies is simply destroyed by 1776.

McCullough uses seemingly endless research of personal diaries, letters, and other documents, to offer a view of the war from those who lived through it. According to 1776, plenty of colonists opposed the war, a steady flow of soldiers deserted for the other side or were more than happy to leave once their enlistment ended (sometimes leaving the army in dire straits), and the leadership of Washington was often rightly doubted.

It was also surprising how, at times, the focus of those involved in the war was on other things. For instance, Washington is portrayed as having written detailed letters to the caretakers of his home about things he wanted done, and suggested he’d be there before too long. Troops left the war after being away for a while to tend to their own homes. Clearly independence from England wasn’t always seen as a do-or-die struggle.

Aside from all of that, the book (or historical fact) makes it seem almost ironic that 1776 is revered by Americans. By the time I reached page 200 of 294, I began wondering if we actually won the war. Again, the image of a rag-tag colonial army beating up the strongest military in the world is revealed as fantasy. The British pretty much thumped the colonies for the entire year until Washington’s sneak attack across the Delaware.

Part of the problem I had, I think, was the focus on the one year, which leaves too many unanswered questions. The implication is that the attack that started Christmas night was the turning point of the war. No doubt it was, but the war went on for years. After reading about so many colonial defeats, I wanted a clearer understanding of how one attack changed everything.

To be honest, when I decided to read the book I thought it was more about the diplomacy of the time as opposed to the focus on the military activity. Historians seem to focus on wars to the extreme, which may be perfectly reasonable since the Declaration of Independence might be one of those tedious details of history had of history we lost the Revolutionary War. That said, the author’s focus on specific battles made for some tedious reading for me. I’d rather read about the debates over the Constitution than the war that let us write one.

Obviously, I’m not about to suggest McCullough’s Pulitzer prize winner is anything less than worth reading. But most will find 1776 slow reading.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Syriana — Movie Review

Syriana offers a look into the world of the oil companies, and drives home the message that curruption runs rampant throughout the industry. I’d be lying if I even suggested that I understood every nuance of the political implications covered in the film, but the point was clear enough — the titans of the oil business will stop at nothing in pursuit of profits.

The film follows various “players” in the oil game with a pending merger of two of the largest companies forming the backdrop. From a CIA operative, to a lawyer for the oil company, an oil broker, and a forward-thinking foreign prince set to take power and try to bring democracy to his country, each faces the back-door dealings that seems to make ever reigning in the oil industry an impossibility.

Syriana is one of the more difficult films I’ve tried to review. I felt like I was working so hard to truly grasp everything, it was very hard to sit back and just watch the movie. Ultimately, I don’t think the film is all that complicated, but it makes the casual viewer work a bit too hard to get a handle on what’s going on.

George Clooney plays a fictionalized version of former CIA operative Bob Barnes. He headlines the effort to show the various personal stories on all sides of the battle for oil. However, the attempt to show that despite cultural differences people are all the same, which is discussed in the DVD extras as being a major aspect of the movie, really did not come through.

For me, Matt Damon’s character, Bryan Woodman, helped bring home the pending disasters that society’s reliance on oil has set the world up for. Despite the tragedy of losing his young son, he attempts to forge ahead to help change the power structure of the Middle East. It underlined more than anything else the importance of bringing stability to that region.

In contrast to the theme of “we’re all not as different as we think,” the sad reality of the oil business depicted in the movie came through just fine. The corruption is shown as extending to the point that the oil companies actively seek to keep the Middle East in a state of chaos, which benefits their bottom lines. Of course, the scariest reality that the movie points out is that the reliance on oil will end some day since it is an unlimited resource, and then true chaos can begin.

I hesitate to say watch that you should this film to get a better understanding of how ownership of oil is as key an element to worldwide politics as anything, and broaden your horizons. My guess is that I could watch the world news every night for a year and still not be informed enough to know if this film can do that. Nonetheless, my guess is also that it can and you should.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

16 Blocks — Movie Review

16 Blocks was dubbed a thriller on the back of the DVD case. Yet, somewhat strong characters carried this fast-paced, if not necessarily action-packed, film as far as it could go.

A simplistic plot consisted of run-down cop Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) being assigned to escort a witness to court. Eddie Bunker (Mos Def), the witness and an ex-con, turns out to be on his way to implicate several dirty cops, including Mosley. The short trip to the courthouse is rife with danger, as the dirty cops try to take out Bunker before he testifies against them. Mosley, for once, tries to do the right thing by following through on his assignment to get Bunker to court.

The film opens with a brief foreshadowing of Mosley dictating his will, which pulls you in right away. The action actually gets a bit bogged down as it approaches what is supposed to be the climax. Bunker and Mosley sort of stumble into a standoff with police, presumably not all of whom are corrupt, which seemed like the perfect opportunity for them to stop running. Instead, the corrupt cops paint Mosley as having taken hostages, and the action continues.

There’s some good chemistry between Willis and Def that allows the film to work. Though the quirkiness in Def’s character doesn’t cut it as the intended comic relief, the desire to start a better life manifested in a copy book full of notes for a planned business lets you root for him. The transformation of Willis’ character comes from his gradual belief in Bunker’s ability to start over.

David Morse, an actor I’ve liked in numerous roles, does an ok job in the role of Frank Nugent. Mosley’s old partner and the head of the effort to kill Bunker, the character seemed like a missed opportunity to add depth to the plot.

While 16 Blocks is just entertaining, it won’t make you wish you’d spent your money elsewhere.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Cars — Movie Review

A rainy day down the shore with the neices and nephews led us where it leads most others . . . the movies. The latest from Disney-Pixar, Cars, ended up being an above average way to pass some time with the kids. At the very least, I went over an hour without hearing, “Do it again, and you’re getting a timeout!” — no small feat, I assure you.

Of course, there wasn’t much to the plot. Lightning McQueen is a rookie sensation just coming into his own as a star on the racecar circuit. The cocky animated car soon finds himself stuck in a small town far from the spotlight working off some community service instead of preparing for the big race. Throw in a love interest, wise older character offering tough love, and a few quirky characters — all cars, of course — and the stage is set for lessons to be learned about what’s important in life.

While an adult sees where the film is headed within minutes, a relatively quiet theater suggested it took the kids’ along for the ride (forgive the pun) with little problem. Unfortunately, the quiet also meant there wasn’t much laughter. In fact, at one point my nephew got the biggest laugh when he shouted out a response to a quandry of McQueen’s.

I rarely notice soundtracks, especially in animated flicks, but this one wasn’t bad at all. Rascal Flatts’ cover of Tom Cochrane's 1991 hit "Life Is a Highway" was very good, and John Mayer does a nice job on "Route 66" (Chuck Berry's version is also included on the soundtrack). James Taylor’s "Our Town" also stood out for me.

I wouldn’t suggest an all-adult viewing or anything, but if you’re looking to entertain the kids, Cars is worth watching.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

One More Geno's Supporter

I was amazed to be sitting in Stone Harbor still hearing about some little sign in the window of Geno’s Steaks asking customers to order in English. I began wondering if Geno had moved to Rome, and was making some sort of absurd request. But, no, Geno’s is still right here in Philly, and the liberals merely have something new to cry about.

I found this at philly.com:

The city's Commission on Human Relations yesterday filed a discrimination complaint against Geno's Steaks over signs that read: "This is AMERICA ... WHEN ORDERING SPEAK ENGLISH."

. . . "We think it is discriminatory, and we are concerned about the image of Philadelphia," [said Rev. James S. Allen Sr., commission chairman].

According to the complaint, . . . the restaurant is in violation of two sections of the city's antidiscrimination laws: denying service to someone because of his or her national origin, and having printed material making certain groups of people feel their patronage is unwelcome.
Clearly, the city’s Commission on Human Relations needs more to do. Are they seriously suggesting every establishment have the ability to serve customers in whatever language they damn well choose to speak?

While the blogosphere has already done it’s thing on this story, I just wanted to add one more voice of support for Geno’s. As a guy — speaking English — who has been hung up on by human resource people countless times due to a speech disability, I find it laughable that a so-called Commission on Human Relations decides this is worth pursuing.

Allen and his commission need to get a clue. Geno’s is not acting in a discriminatory manner by any logical definition of the term. The owner of Geno’s merely took the step politicians are too weak-kneed to take themselves, and announced that English is the language spoken in America.

The fact is he’s not even targeting any immigrant who has come to America to make a real effort to be part of this country. He is not denying service based on national origin, nor targeting any specific group as unwelcome.

He’s clearly tired of dealing with those who come here expecting everyone else to “respect” their culture — the one they left, hoping for a better life in America — with no intention of respecting our culture. He’s far from alone.

There’s plenty of real discrimination in this country. The Commission on Human Relations should feel free to deal with it, and stop defending those who could not care less about the city, and country, the commission serves.

Friday, June 9, 2006

War Coverage Getting Absurd

Last night I saw Larry King interviewing the commander of the attack that killed al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaida in Iraq who personally beheaded Nicholas Berg.

King literally started the interview with Lieutenant General Gary North of the United States Air Force (his official designation is Combined Air Forces Component Commander) asking, “How did we pull this off general?”

Have we completely abandoned the idea of “a need-to-know” basis? Does the media have any boundaries left? Better yet, why was North made available to the media?

It’s absurd that military attacks now come complete with the equivalent of a post-game news conference. Just because technology makes it possible to cover a war in this way doesn’t mean it should be. I’m still struggling with the concept of reporters embedded in military units. Seeing video of bombs hitting their target are almost commonplace.

Now, it seems, the media is determined to take it further. How far are we from post-flight questioning of bomber pilots?

The argument against what I’m saying is that the public has a right to know. It’s an argument that has already cost lives, and helps make wars about individuals.

Our military knew al-Zarqawi helped killed Berg because the murder was taped. It was taped because the terrorists knew it would be aired in the United States. It’s actually considered restraint on the part of news outlets not to have aired the actual beheading. As revolting as Berg’s murder was, it was one more example of the media creating news.

While killing al-Zarqawi has been cause for awkward celebration, the thought comes to mind that the very thing that made him a target, or at least recognizable to the U.S. public — television — is now a tool of terrorism.

Every video Osama bin Laden puts out reaches the news. Every rant by Saddam Hussein is aired over and over. Reports of what the 9/11 terrorist that went to trial had to say flooded our TV screens.

Terrorists don’t want to kill one American. They want to kill all of us. Killing one of us on video is about sending that message, and the same desire to hear how we pulled off a military operation allows their message to be broadcast far and wide.

Instead of doing whatever it takes to support our country’s efforts to fight terrorists, we soak up every detail. The problem is that the same desire to defend our right to know seems to be more important than defending our country.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Fixing a Night at the Movies

I actually went out to see a movie for the first the first time in a while this week, as opposed to just waiting for the DVD or catching the flick on cable. Though I haven’t heard the complaint in recent months, I thought I’d offer theater owners that like to wine about movie rentals killing their business some advice.

Turn up (meaning give us less of) the freakin’ air conditioning! I’m not sure when it was decided that we like to freeze our you-know-whats off at the movies, but I’d like to change this rule. I really don’t want to bring a jacket just to watch a movie when its sweltering outside. What exactly is wrong with having the thermometer at 70 degrees? Maybe theater managers are the type that like to have a blanket over them as they watch a movie on the couch at home. Ok, fine. This isn’t possible at a theater. Stop making me shiver.

Confiscate cell phones. It’s bad enough every sporting event now has at least one idiot waving with a cell phone in his ear at a camera he can’t even see with his buddy saying, “Dude, you’re on!” (It’s TV, people. Get over it.) Now, we have glowing lights popping up every five seconds because putting the cell on vibrate is apparently too unreliable, and the world may end if we miss the 10th “Whatyadoin’?” call of the day. Here’s a tip: If you’re not a doctor, it can wait. If it can’t, don’t go to the damn movie.

Anything over two hours needs an intermission. Yeah, this one’s a bit picky, but c’mon! Even if you skip the concessions and avoid all liquids for an hour before leaving, you know you’re squirming to use the bathroom by the end. Give us a break!

Stop giving away other entire movies in previews. Adam Sandler’s next movie, Click, looks decent, but I already know the basic story. He’s given a clicker that can do all the things a regular clicker can do, except it works on life. Fast-forwarding through fights with his wife, some guffaws with the pause button, etc., all seems pretty cool. Sounds like a funny film. But then the preview shows how the fast-forward function gets stuck. If you can’t guess the rest of the movie except for details, put your head down and rest.

Finally . . . clean the men’s room! I’m not saying make it sparkle. But some of us actually need the accessible stall, and would like to be able to hold the bar without wondering what the hell got it wet.

Try even a couple of these and maybe, just maybe, waiting for the DVD won’t seem so appealing.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Da Vinci Code — Movie Review

A project that involves Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and one of the most popular books in recent history probably had little chance of living up to expectation. While I disagree with the relatively poor reviews The DaVinci Code is receiving, the book definitely was better.

If anyone actually hasn’t read the book, or at least heard about the plot, a murder in the Louvre leads to a hunt through code after code for a religious secret. Clues are hidden in paintings of DaVinci, and reveal a “the greatest cover up in human history” that has been protected for 2000 years by a secret society, the Priory of the Sion.

The movie was at a major disadvantage for me, as the best part of the story were the historical lessons intertwined in the plot. Already having read the book, I didn’t have the same eye-popping reaction to the lessons being revealed. (Despite the Catholic Church’s “father knows best” message about the movie, the revelations are fascinating.) While the book managed to bring the reader along without slowing things down, the movie just wasn’t able to pull off the same magic for the viewer. Although, for those who haven’t read the book, this may not be the case.

There was an effort to compensate for pace issues created by the history lectures, with special affects blending historic and present-day scenes. Maybe I’ve lost my ability to be awed, but I couldn’t do much more than appreciate them as decent.

The film did have a couple advantages over the book, however. With so much of the plot tied up in Da Vinci’s work, it was a major plus to see the paintings (obviously). Seeing The Last Super, along with the affects used to explain the hidden messages, may have been the best part of the movie. I was disappointed that they glossed over the explanation of the Mona Lisa, though certainly its lack of importance to the plot made the move understandable. In fact, I was surprised at how little was skipped from the book.

I also found the ending significantly clearer. I should probably go back and re-read the book’s ending, but I felt like the reader was just sort of led to the conclusions. The movie didn’t leave any doubts.

Tom Hanks, portraying symbologist Robert Langdon, didn’t do anything to hurt the character. Audrey Tautou was equally ok as Sophie Neveu. With so much story to be told, there wasn’t much room for acting to matter much.

If you read the book, you’re going to see the movie regardless of anything some reviewer says. But, for the record and the rest of you, The Da Vinci Code is worth watching.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Newspaper Rx

Philadelphia’s two major papers — The Inquirer and Daily News — were sold to private investors this week after years of corporate ownership. As I heard and read various opinions on what this all means to news coverage, I began wondering what I would want to see in a newspaper.

Opening anything besides the sports page is a rarity for me for two reasons. First of all, most of it is irrelevant to my life. Wednesday’s Inquirer had three front page stories — the sale of the paper, the GOP’s outlook in PA, and the Washington-area sniper. Sorry but none of that truly affects anyone.

I know, I know, it all affects me, right? Sure, I can come up with sweeping statements about the importance of the judicial system, the media, and the government impacting everyone’s life. But few care enough to read long, stylistic articles about these subjects.

So, the first thing I would do is bring back pyramid style writing. This is not the ranting of an X-generation guy who is too impatient to read an article. I’m just sick of every damn story having some dramatic or cutesy opening. Give me what the hell happened and move on. Leave column writing to columnists.

Second, I think papers should do a better job of educating readers. Educating, not influencing. Why is Social Security doomed? Why hasn’t Iraq become self-governing yet? Stop babbling away about the political battles, and, as much as possible, offer concise explanations of the real issues. And, by the way, don’t be afraid to do it again next month.

In fact, make those the only stories you repeat. In Philly we had 24-hours of Terrell Owens coverage for about six months last year. It was the same idiotic story day after day. Cover news, not hype.

Next, eliminate bogus quotes. Simply don’t print any more canned quotes that mean nothing, aren’t meant to mean anything, and are known not to mean anything. I realize there may never be another quote from most athletes after a bad loss or politicians accused of a crime, but I can live with that.

Stop covering what celeb slept with what other celeb. Are people who care about that stuff really reading the paper?

Finally, I can’t write a post like this without mentioning the lack of coverage concerning people with disabilities. I’ve said it before; if any other minority faced the level of unemployment we do, it would dominate the news. But it doesn’t fit the formula of covering people with disabilities in human interest stories only, so it’s ignored.

Clearly, this doesn’t cure all that ails newspapers. But it’s one man’s opinion for a good start.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Catch-22 Book Review

I could never figure out why I had never been assigned to read Catch-22 in school. A so-called classic, the title is commonly used to reference “a situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.” (See Dictionary.com.) After laboring through Joseph Heller’s novel for the last several weeks, I’d like to thank every English teacher I ever had for not assigning it.

Yossarian is A bombardier looking to survive war at all cost. His biggest hurdle is his own colonel, named Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions men must fly to complete their service. The bureaucratic rule called catch-22 that seems to offer hope of being relieved of duty is really just one big contradiction – a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, yet merely requesting relief from such duty proves the he is sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved.

Yossarian’s response is to spend as much time as possible in the infirmary to avoid combat. This, of course, becomes another catch-22 as the number of missions is always raised while he’s in the hospital. In fact, if he’d merely flown his missions as scheduled, he might have reached the required number of missions to be relieved of duty.

Laughing yet? Me neither. I’ll admit that dark humor does little for me, but I don’t think that’s the only problem I had with the novel. There’s just no true foil for the endless stupidity of events in the story. Not even Yossarian rages against the absurdity that surrounds him enough to give the reader an anchor of sanity. It’s merely one idiotic thing after another, without the promised hilarity.

Another problem seems to be the whole focus, or non-focus, on the catch-22 rule. It is supposed to be one obscure rule, but the phrase is already being used by the characters to describe instances of what amounts to double-talk. Yossarian’s actions aren’t a true response to the rule, they’re just his way of avoiding combat after learning that catch-22 was of no help in that pursuit. There’s no real reason for the characters to have focused on the rule, except as a symbol of all the other absurdity. If that was the case, it was far from clear.

Heller seemed to want to make a statement about unquestioned command in the military. If so, it was certainly clear enough that he had little time for it. I just think his potential point is lost in the lack of sane behavior to balance the absurdity blind loyalty can create.

The title alone forces me to suggest reading Catch-22 to broaden your horizons. If nothing else, reading it let’s readers know where the famous phrase comes from.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Will & Grace Finale

Who would’ve thought Will & Grace would offer up a better finale than the West Wing? The show took a surprising risk, and showed what happened to the characters twenty years into the future instead of wrapping up a short-range story line. While it did not offer edge-of-your-seat suspense, the finale offered a realistic view of the complex relationship between a gay man and straight woman.

Scoff if you will, but the relationship between the two main characters was always complex. The question of “where the hell is this going” was never far from the show. The answer — not too far — may have been disheartening, though it was ultimately softened by “fate” leading their children to meet, seemed realistic.

Of course, sit-com finales always seem a bit disappointing in the one element that made them thrive — humor. Will & Grace was really no different, but did an above average job of remember the laughs. But it was certainly not a laugh riot, as the necessity of story-telling to tie up loose ends took over.

The hour of behind-the-scenes clips before the show, however, provided a great reminder of how funny the show once was. I will admit I was reluctant to watch a show with a gay main character. But after missing half of the first show I watched busting a gut at Jack, I was hooked. Though it lagged a bit in the final seasons, Will & Grace was always worth it to make a point to watch.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

West Wing Finale

I just couldn’t pass up my last chance to critique West Wing. Still disappointed the show ended this week, I was merely satisfied by its ending. After seven seasons, the finale was done straight down the middle — offering the behind-the-scenes details of the presidency fans loved, but little excitement. I give the producers credit for not making one last grab at the overly dramatic, but some drama would’ve been nice.

The show basically ended when the election was decided for the Santos character, which I still think they foreshadowed all too clearly in the first episode of the season. Their depiction of the transition was decent, but knowing the show was ending the final episodes had little to care about.

Ironically, NBC’s airing of the pilot just before the finale only reminded viewers of how far the show had slipped. A fast-paced show with amazing attention to detail focused on how things truly got done in Washington got bogged down in a major transition that was ultimately unnecessary.

While the final episode tied up plenty of loose ends, I’m surprised at how many details the series let go in the last few years. The biggest unanswered question, of course, revolved around why Sam never returned to the White House. But I was more intrigued by the smaller details left unexplained. One episode suggested Margaret was pregnant, but the pregnancy just sort of disappeared. Whatever happened to Josh’s replacement in Bartlett’s administration? Bartlett’s teen-aged granddaughter mentioned in the pilot?

Ok, maybe I’m nit-picking. But, I do think the show lost itself in an effort to keep the show going past Bartlett. I think most viewers were just waiting to get the election over with. While I’d have been on board with a Santos West Wing, in retrospect fudging the calendar and keeping Bartlett around may have made more sense.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Excitement Wanted

Ok, so I’m not the only guy whose bored with his surroundings this week. Some guy named David Blaine apparently tried to set a world record for holding his breath. Here’s the funny part — it was on ABC . . . in prime time . . . during sweeps.

It gets even funnier — people actually watched. In fact, according to Bling, some bloggers had the nerve to be angry that the network wussed out on the promise that he would succeed or “die trying.” However, no one seemed bothered that they were dumb enough to watch a show on a guy holding his breath or believe that he would die trying.

Of course, I’m guilty of watching plenty of dumb TV, too. I’m practically addicted to Deal or No Deal. I haven’t decided what’s more intriguing: watching people get weak in the knees over passing up one-hundred grand or Howie Mandel offering the fist-knock to avoid shaking hands.

It’s so bad that I actually checked out Dallas Maverick owner Mark Cuban’s blog after he was fined for ripping NBA refs, and found a post on clickfraud. Can someone please tell me why a filthy rich guy even knows about click-through programs?

Of course, in the midst of all this, NBC brings the curtain down on West Wing this weekend, giving TV viewers one less reason to watch. At least The Da Vinci Code hits theaters next week. Still the best book I ever read, I plan to make it my first review of a movie “in theaters now.”

Yeah, I know, read a book. Well, I’m trying, and my review of Catch-22 will explain why that hasn’t helped my boredom . . . if I ever get through it.