The 2nd Annual Rockers!

Screen shot 2013-12-29 at 1.06.20 PMThis is not a BEST OF  list.   It’s about impact, surprise and lingering effect.  As a lifelong culture vulture, creative person and relentless observer of waaay too much, I have the greatest respect for anything out there that stays with me – particularly in a good way.   Mostly because it’s so tough to break through all the noise these days.   Or perhaps it’s just that lately I have the attention span of a gnat.

Of course, starting any project with the goal of making a huge and lasting splash is a sure recipe for disaster.  Much as I hate to admit, this has happened to me several times over the years.  However, when people hunker down and “do their own thing” (as they used to say back in the day) the result can sometimes be, for lack of a better word – sublime.

sub·lime

1. Characterized by nobility; majestic.

2. a. Of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth.

b. Not to be excelled; supreme.

3. Inspiring awe; impressive.

Did someone say Supreme?

Did someone say Supreme?

Any one of those could earn you a Rocker and, let’s face it, who among us wouldn’t want to be awarded a photo of a red mid-century style chair.  (Note: Chair – Rocker, get it?).  Though perhaps using the term nobility is a bit much. Definition #3 – impressive, inspiring awe – isn’t that enough?  Yes, I think so.  And these, in no particular order other than the one that we chose, are my OUR awards.

BEST ROCKIN’ INDIE DARLINGS

Short Term 12; Fruitvale Station; The Spectacular Now

Indie, dahling

Indie, dahling

These three movies, all low budget independent films, have more to say in 5 minutes than do most of their budget-bloated major studio brethren manage to serve up in two three hours.  Of course, their combined box-office grosses are not equivalent to the opening weekend of, say – Ironman 3; Thor 2; or even Jack the Giant Slayer.

What this confirms once more is that fine dramatic storytelling is not the goal of the major studios anymore.  Though if it manages to happen on one of their releases amid a large profit and even larger chance to cash in via future ancillary markets and/or rights, they’ll take it.

Do not write in and call me a snob or say that this has been so in the film biz for one or two decades.  I, and even we, know that.  But it’s getting worse.  Can’t we retain even a small sliver?  Well, in their own awe-inspiring, impressive ways all three of the above did that and more.

Short Term 12:  Bravura performances all around in a deceptively multi-layered and tight original screenplay from first time writer-director Destin Cretton – whose next announced project is the film adaptation of the bestselling book The Glass Castle, starring Jennifer Lawrence.  If there is any justice Mr. Cretton will be Oscar and WGA nominated for his story of juvenile outcasts and the young people who try to help them at a “short term” facility – but there likely isn’t.  Still – now he’s got JLaw so it’s a win-win.

The Spectacular Now: A throwback to the small romantic dramas of decades ago where two mismatched, oddball young people fall in love in a most uncomfortable way.  It’s not perfect but it has so much heart that it wins you over.  This is in part due to actors Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller and to an even greater extent as a result of the adaptation of the book by 500 Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, and the precise, sensitive work of director James Ponsoldt.  The script lingered for years before Ms. Woodley, a hot commodity after starring as George Clooney’s troubled daughter in The Descendants, became its champion.  Lesson here:  Create great roles for actors.

Fruitvale Station: Finally caught up with it last night at home and am still foaming at the mouth with rage at the murder six years ago of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year old African American male who was finally about to get his life together for the sake of his daughter, his family and himself.  The choice of writer-director and USC film school grad Ryan Coogler to tell this real life story in an unembellished pseudo-documentary style is what’s most impressive here.  The film was developed through Sundance and won best dramatic feature.   Yes, there are those who like to dismiss Sundance these days as pretentious and elitist.  Watch this movie before you go there.   In fact, just don’t go there anymore.

STEFON’S FAREWELL!

Bill Hader left the cast of Saturday Night Live at the end of the season this year and along with that went the departure of Stefon – his beloved club kid correspondent for Weekend Update.  Since goodbyes are often an inevitable and dreaded part of life – especially when it comes to the mercurial television landscape – it was at least nice to see that he was sent off with love and style and his own sort of gay wedding.

What can you say about a segment that featured Furbies, the real DJ Baby Bok Choy and an Anderson Cooper-Seth Meyers fist fight?  Only that it was a perfect homage and finale to one of SNL’s most original and beloved characters.

(Note:  For everything you ever wanted to know about the 38 seasons of SNL check out the funny, brand new and exhaustively researched book, Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television’s Longest-Running ComedyThe author is Stephen Tropiano and he’s the Seth to my inner Stefon)

Note: Hader created Stefon with the very talented comedian-writer John Mulaney.  His standup act is hilarious and he is doing a new TV comedy for Fox next year in which he’ll star as the young, struggling comedian he once was.  Co-starring will be Martin Short.  Must see TV?  We think so.

ROCKIN’ NEWS MOMENT OF THE YEAR 

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US Supreme Court Pro Gay Marriage Ruling.

Starring:  Rob Reiner, David Boies, Ted Olson, Edie Windsor, Kristin Perry & Sandra Stier, Paul Katami & Jeffrey Zarrillo – and President Barack Obama.

There has not been a film or television movie about it – yet.  But this year’s landmark US Supreme Court rulings that officially legalized gay marriage on a federal level is a landmark case that will have positive civil rights repercussions for generations.

Not to be partisan – but I will be – the reasoning behind this decision was foreshadowed in Pres. Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech where he talked about the journey “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.”  Translation:  the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights, and LGBT rights are all one in the same and if the US stands for anything it means we progress towards freedoms for not some but all Americans.    Here is his exact quote:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths—that all of us are created equal—is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth.

citizen_cane

Arguing the case were lawyers Boies and Olson – adversaries in another famous US Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, for the courageous LGBT defendants Windsor, Perry, Stier, Katami and Zarrillo.  Oh, and if you don’t think it takes courage to be the public face in a civil rights case in terms of time, attention and vociferous hate mail – try it some time.  Or better yet, just post a comment to any random website where you disagree with an extreme right wing position – as I did this weekend about A & E’s reversing its decision to reinstate Duck Dynasty’s hate-speaking Phil Robertson – and note the number of truly savage, hate-filled responses you get.  It ain’t pretty.

A meathead no more!

A meathead no more!

Finally, you can dislike whatever Rob Reiner films you choose to but you cannot be disagreeable about his overwhelming commitment of time and energy to both raise money and personally finance the fight for gay marriage through it’s case origins in California right up through to the US Supreme Court.  There are political activists in the industry but few with Mr. Reiner’s reach, fervor or unwavering determination.  And, uh – p.s. – he’s not even g-a-y.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

BREAKING BAD – THE FINALE SEASON

Tear.

Tear.

There are so few moments in pop culture that live up to the hype.  But the phenomenon that was Breaking Bad was one of them.  I was admittedly late to the game in catching up with all seven seasons but given the national cultural hysteria I finally gave in, knowing full well that I would inevitably be disappointed.

Okay, well, so I don’t know everything.

I chronicled my eight days of binge-watching all 52 BB episodes here in time to join the real world in real time for the finale.  It might make my life seem small and insignificant to note that it is one of the few experiences I will never forget – but only if you have never tuned in and checked out the show itself.

Why does it work?   There are so many obvious reasons – great writing, acting, directing and across-the-board terrific technical talents.  But it was also a perfect reflection of our times in telling the story of an extremely smart but downtrodden everyman – nee a financially struggling high school chemistry teacher who is suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer– who will do anything to provide not only for his family but for himself before he dies.  And anything means – A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G. If you want to know more than that, borrow some DVDs or hack into someone else’s Netflix account.

Finales are tricky but this one proved every bit as powerful as each and every episode before it.  Sadly, this was not the case with another departing hit show fave of mine – Dexter.  Yes, endings are tough.   But ending well and going out the way you came in (Note:  Yes, that’s an unintentional quote from the 1967 camp classic Valley of the Dolls) – that’s the toughest.

ROCKIN’ THE WOOL OVER THE AUDIENCE’S EYES  — IT’S A TIE!!!

HBO’S Behind the Candelabra  &  NBC’s The Sound of Music – LIVE

Help!

Help!

Popularity doesn’t mean you rock.  It just means you’re popular.  I mean, did Paris Hilton rock?  Does (or did?)  Kim Kardashian?  Or, to put it another way, did Crash deserve to win the best picture Oscar over Brokeback Mountain? (Note: Watch them again and then compare and report back).

What popularity does account for are bodies taking notice of you or your deeds or your product.  That does not mean you’re good or even well done.  It just means you are and that you got A LOT of attention.

Therefore, by any objective standards the Liberace movie called Behind the Candelabra and the NBC live three-hour broadcast of the beloved musical The Sound of Music starring country singer Carrie Underwood were phenomenal hits.  But to my mind, not in a good way.  Carrie Underwood has a pleasant voice but cannot act.  I mean, I could’ve played a better Maria – especially if I got to do some of those lines next to Audra MacDonald.

As for story of closeted gay icon pianist Liberace – it was not the true story – that would have been far more salacious since Liberace’s real life lover Scott Thorson was 16 years old when they first met and couldn’t have been played by Matt Damon.  Had the real story been told – and not just the gay men as spectacle taleit would have had to be shown as the telefilm version of NBC’s To Catch A Predator.

In conclusion, and put it in high school terms – which often works in all things Hollywood – there is no way to argue with popularity.  It either is or it isn’t and you either are or you’re not.  But remember – the Emperor’s New Clothes were once popular, too.   Just sayin’.

ROCKIN’ SENTIMENTAL MOVIE OF THE YEAR

Saving Mr. Banks

Believe the hype.

Believe the hype.

No, I’m not going to defend myself.  I loved it — and not just because I loved Mary Poppins as a kid. The film is being sold as a comedy but it’s really about how writers (or any artists) try to survive the painful moments of childhood by weaving its high and low points into some sort of creative expression that can correct and/or save you or your loved ones from the situation.  As a writer who has done just that – and speaking for anyone else who hopes to do just that – you can keep all of your snide, snickering bah humbug remarks to yourself.

Plus – there’s Emma Thompson.  She’s not only sad, touching and irascibly funny in the movie, she gives the most hilarious press interviews you’ll ever want to see.  Case closed.

ROCKIN’ MALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR:

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

Me-Ow

Me-Ow

The guy can act AND sing.  No, seriously – he can really, really sing.  You can’t fake that when you’re playing the lead role of a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village in a Coen Bros. movie and a good part of the film is you, in five feet of close-up, chirping unadorned for the entire international world to see.

Also when the moments that you are singing onstage are the only ones where the audience can truly sympathize with your character’s plight, it is an enormous acting challenge.  Therefore, it didn’t surprise me or anyone else to hear the filmmakers admit publicly on a panel after an early screening of their film that had Mr. Isaac not walked in and nailed his audition very late in the casting process they were not sure if they would be able to make their movie at all.

The film as a whole is to a taste.  Okay, it’s odd.  But it’s also a rare opportunity to watch someone you’ve probably never seen onscreen before totally morph into an unforgettable character you’re unlikely to see onscreen again at any time soon.  If ever.

ROCKIN’ FEMALE PERFORMANCE OF THE YEAR IN TECH ACHIEVEMENT OF THE YEAR:

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Floating towards.. Oscar?

Oh, hiss and boo your own selves, as Bette Midler so aptly put it in her 1985 comedy album Mud Will Be Flung, Tonight!  I thought Sandy (yeah, that’s what everyone in the biz calls her) was pretty great in the movie….actually, quite great.

Fine – you try acting to nothing for most of your time on camera.  And when I say nothing I mean – nada.  There’s a green screen behind you.  You’re suspended in the air in a heavy faux astronaut’s uniform.  And you’re shooting on and off for years on end, trying to maintain some continuity of your character’s emotional state while the technical team behind your film tries over and over again to get the special effects just right.

Yeah, yeah, I know Cate Blanchett was terrific in Blue Jasmine.  But why does digging into the emotional life of a Ruth Madoff meets Blanche DuBois character have to trump the acting skill it takes to survive the contemporary vagaries of big major studio, SFX ridden contemporary Hollywood while simultaneously delivering an against-the-odds truly convincing performance that literally carries the film?  It doesn’t.  Sorry.  Sandy wins.

PS – Yes, her body looked good in those shorts.  So what??!!!

PPS – The movie was a huge leap in what we can do in SFX – not that you care!!

ROCKIN’ ACCLAIMED NOVEL I STARTED THREE TIMES BUT CAN’T YET CRACK: 

The Goldfinch By Donna Tart

This is thoroughly unfair but why can’t I read past pg. 20 of 761 pages no matter how many times I read those 20 pages over? I know the book is acclaimed but why, why, why is its prose so dry, dry, dry and leaving me so parched, parched, parched?  Too much TV?

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(Note: Before judging me you should know I read every wet word of both Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections AND Freedom and always wanted more).

ROCKIN’ UNACCLAIMED MEMOIR I LIKE TO READ ESSAYS FROM:

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, By Chris Kluwe

Also.. best hair!

Also.. best hair!

Funny, snide, smart, scrappy, funny, fun, fun.

And it’s not only because he’s hot and spoke up for the gays.  And…personally answered one of my tweets.  On Twitter.  In a direct message.  Okay, maybe that’s part of it.  But it’s not…everything.

ROCKIN(EST) SCARY VERSION OF THE FUTURE THAT MIGHT ALREADY BE THE PRESENT:

Spike Jonze’s Her

Falling in love... no buffering

Falling in love… no buffering

This is a world where a lonely fella can fall in love with his operating system (OS).  Yes, the OS is voiced brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson, who strangely enough gives what, oddly, is her best screen performance.  The sexy rasp and all…

Still, there is something significant happening here that goes well beyond Simone, the interesting but long forgotten 2002 film where a man concocts the ideal virtual female.  What’s going on is also significantly depressing if you think about it for too long or in the wrong way.  What is the right way to consider a world in the not so distant future where many of us are so incapable of relationships that we turn to our computers or mobile devices for our primary emotional attachments?  To admit that it is really happening right now?  Or to dismiss that notion as some sort of superficial movie industry take on New Media for Dummies?  Hmm, maybe neither.

None of this would work at all were it not for Joaquin Phoenix’s extremely committed performance.  But none of it would even be possible at all without the originality Spike Jonze brings to a subject matter so easy to present in a hackneyed way.

Wait – originality?  Yeah, I said it – you didn’t have to.  So, maybe 2013 leaves us with some hope after all?  Well, we can all rock to… this:

To the Moon and Back

TO THE MOON

Never ever trust an accomplished famous person who says in an interview:

Every day is an exciting opportunity to be creative. I have a strong work ethic.  I just don’t get depressed. 

This goes double for any formerly regular individual who is profiled because of something awful that they recently endured.

Each second is precious now.  It can all get taken from you in a moment – in my case it almost did.  So I appreciate friends, family, even the ants on my front stoop.  Everything, all of it, is good.

Oh. Please.  Make it stop.

Some days (or weeks) are just tiring or even awful.  Like the seasons, life runs in cycles.  (Note:  I just realized I sounded like one of those two I quoted above.  Yikes!).  There’s nothing wrong with admitting you’re a bit tired, burnt out or even sad.  Yes – there are works of art waiting to be created that you can start right now but chocolate and potato chips and reruns of your favorite bad reality show feel a lot better right now.  Each of them tastes good.  And even if you’re not devouring them, somehow it just feels reassuring to know that they’re there to take a bite of whenever you want.  Which inevitably will lead to a meal, who are we kidding?  But, as we’ve already concluded, it’s okay to down that, or even be down with the idea of it.  No one’s advocating it as a way of life – tempting as that might be at any given moment when you don’t feel like taking on the world.

This week was one of those weeks for me.  No particular reason.  Though I would like to blame it on the government shutdown brought to you by the childish temper tantrums of ultra right wing America.   Yes, I drink a lot of green tea – which is good for your digestion and is supposed to be restorative – but long ago I recognized this simple fact:

Life is not a Tea Party, nor will it, or should it, ever be.

It's OK when things boil over

It’s OK when things boil over

By the way, there is nothing at all wrong with thinking this way – politically or as a life philosophy.  If it’s all good then you’re forced to believe things like cancer and Sarah Palin moose hunting and peas and carrots in a can have to be put on the positive list.  And we all know that’s just plain dumb.  At least as dumb as one of the other two live things listed above (and I don’t mean the moose).

So what to do?  Well, there’s this world out there that most of the entire greater world is obsessed with.  That world is appropriately called: entertainment.  And, call me crazy (which many have and presumably are still yet to do), this week there was a lot to choose from.

I’m all for creativity, psychotherapy, hanging out with friends and overindulging with food or your _________ of choice to a point.  But if you’re one of the gazillions of people out there who still like a good new-fashioned movie, TV show or, well, other diversions, know this: summer is over and a bunch of new stuff is available for any one over 18 needing to escape a little.  (Note:  Those under 18 – I’m not including you here because everything else in the world of entertainment caters to you.  Still, if you want to sneak a peak at any of this stuff, I can’t stop you.   Just like I can’t stop you from posting a photo of your cat doing pushups on Instagram).

In any event, here is a small but select list of what can get you through.

GRAVITY

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Believe the hype but cut it in half so your expectations won’t be too high.  At a taut 91 minutes, Gravity is one of those movies that you’re sure is going to bore or disappoint you but somehow manages to get under your skin and stay there – in a great way.

There will be no spoilers here but as you can probably tell from the poster, Sandra Bullock plays a woman up in space that…well, that’s all you need to know.  Yes, there are lots of shots of stars, sky and things being weightless.  However, these are all done in service of something quite unusual in this genre of film – a story, and a small one at that.

The innovation here is that small doesn’t have to mean bad in the age of the major studio blockbusters.  Small can be large in terms of excitement, emotion and box-office dollars as this creation from the director Alfonso Cauron and his son, Jonas, who co-wrote the screenplay, proves.

Not interested in space or the space program, you say?  No problem.  Here’s how uninterested I am and have always been in the space program.  When Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon in 1968 and all of America was kvelling about one of our guys becoming #1 before the world, do you know what little 12-year-old me was doing? Sitting alone in the playground of my apartment building looking down at the dirt.  Yes, you heard me.  I did this because I felt quite strongly that the U.S. should not be spending millions of dollars in space when funds were being cut in this country for the underprivileged at the same time we were supporting an unjust war in Vietnam.  If the US government didn’t care enough about the innocents we were killing overseas and our fellow human beings we were turning our backs on in our own country, I would under no circumstances support a macho adventure to unknown parts of the universe that seemed to cater to the testosterone driven needs of us having to be first just so we could have universal bragging rights.  So I sat in the playground and pretended I was nowhere.  And each time anyone brought up or asked me about where I was or what I thought of the moon landing I said my piece. (Surprise!).  Obviously, I still am.

I was Lisa Simpson.

Clearly, I was Lisa Simpson.

Though I probably would do it all over again exactly the same way, Gravity made me feel like I was making up for what everyone says I missed.  Finally, I was not only in space but was more in the actual minds of people who bravely go into those unknown frontiers rather than in the company of the relentless patriot drumbeat of the US patriarchy.  The latter is the kind of group that used to like to make fun of me in school that I would do anything to not be around.  It’s probably why I was indifferent to the last big space astronaut space movie of our time, The Right Stuff, and why for me Gravity soared.  (Note: See the wordplay I did there?)

Plus – prediction: Gravity will win best picture and Sandra Bullock will win best actress.  Sorry Cate Blanchet in Blue Jasmine and apologies 12 Years A Slave, the latter of which I have not yet seen.  You just get a feeling about these things.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN

The witching hour is upon us

In its third season, AHS is like the ex-lover you vow never again to let in your house but the one who you always wind up in bed with when you’re lonely.  Yet with AHS it’s become more than a booty call.  It has graduated to something dependable to which a new name should be attributed.  Use your imagination.  Or better yet, don’t even question it.

After a first season where a mysterious man in a rubber suit seduces any number of people around him, and a second season where Jessica Lange got to sing and dance The Name Game along with all of the rest of the inmates in the Asylum, I was unsure how much further or more imaginative they could get.  Have no fear – Kathy Bates has come to the rescue as a Civil War era torturess conjured up from the past by The Supreme.  No, that’s not Diana Ross or Mary Wilson but the most all-powerful of witches in the secret coven of 2013 witches.  These witches don’t have a pointed hats or wars though they do occasionally wear black.  They are like the cast and audience of a Kardashian family reality show.  And their Supreme is none other than, whom else – Ms. Lange herself.

Is this brilliant TV?  No.  Is this great TV? Yes, YES, YES.

It’s grotesque, politically incorrect, nightmarish and shamelessly campy.  And – I wouldn’t miss a minute of it.  Neither should you.

SHORT TERM 12

The real deal

The real deal

This year’s little movie that could.  I’m not sure what it means for a movie to have rottentomatoes positive scores of 99% from movie critics and 94% from movie audiences but it must be something good.   A good rule of thumb is to not put too much stock in these ratings but in this case – well, after watching the film you’ll see how right and rare it is when audiences and movie critics agree.

ST12 tells the story of a young couple who work at a facility for discarded adolescents from the juvenile system who live in housing on a temporary basis and receive counseling and participate in support groups in order to help them through the sad circumstances of their lives.  So why rush out to something so depressing, particularly if you are feeling down, tired or just randomly depressed?  Because there is something rare and affirming about briefly living stories about young people told in a true, honest and non-movie like way on a small canvas by mostly non-stars.  You might recognize Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. from television or film as the young couple but chances are you will be blown away by how many unknown teenage actors there are who can really act when given the material to do so.  For that the credit goes to its neophyte filmmaker, Destin Daniel Cretton – whose next movie will be a major studio film starring Jennifer Lawrence.  See – even the film business can occasionally be fair.

It should be encouraging to those aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Cretton to learn that the low-budget ST12 began life as a short film and then was expanded into feature script that no one really cared about until it won one the Motion Picture Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting.  The Lesson: don’t give up – keep getting better.

HBO’s Valentine Road

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Sometimes when I’m out of sorts it helps me to get infuriated at the injustices in the world – the stories of people I can identify with who’ve had it far, far worse than I.  To some extent this was the case in Short Term 12, but to every extent this is what it’s like to watch the HBO documentary Valentine Road.

In 2008, an eighth grader named Lawrence King was shot and murdered in point blank range by his classmate, 14-year-old Brandon McInerney in front of a bunch of students.  Does it matter than young Mr. King identified as gay and liked to wear women’s clothes while the classmate who killed him was leaning towards White Supremacy, guns and had a troubled family life?  Some of the jury tasked with ruling on the murder clearly thought so even as this film by Marta Cunningham leaves us to decide by as much as possible presenting both sides.

As a gay man of a certain age it outraged me to see how callous and ignorant a group of educated adults in Oxnard, CA – a neighborhood just outside my adopted hometown of Los Angeles – can be on lgbt issues and just how sympathetic and self-identifying they can be towards a young person who uses bullets instead of conversation in order to fight back against unwanted attention from an lgbt youth.  At times, I couldn’t help but flashback to the too common gay panic defense used decades ago by defendants accused of murdering homosexuals.  But then I checked my Filofax (yes, I still use one – get over it!) calendar and realized it’s not 1953 but 2013.  Wow, is there still a lot of work to do.

And on the other side of the spectrum  – when you can’t sleep and need a non-pharmaceutical dose of the drowsy, there is:

Up Late with Alec Baldwin

I'm guessing there's coffee in those mugs because.. snoooooze

I’m guessing there’s coffee in those mugs because.. snoooooze

Granted, I still haven’t gotten over his abusively hideous phone message to his young daughter several years ago even though his daughter has.   Which is not shocking since I’m still complaining about the 1968 moon landing. Still, I along with everyone else loved Mr. Baldwin on 30 Rock.  Plus, as a dangerously obsessive fan of too many MSNBC shows (yeah, Rachel, Alex, Chris M. & Chris H. – you complete me) I figured – let’s give Alec a chance.  Like me, he’s a liberal and unlike me he gets paid truckloads of money to be funny while evoking smart and generally entertaining.   What could be bad?

Everything, that’s what.  Oy vey.

Seated at a banquette on a set made to look like the kind of wood-paneled men’s club in NYC in the sixties that most of you readers would never get invited to, Mr. Baldwin is only missing his cigarettes and scotch.  Which frankly, I wish he would have had because either might have loosened him up and given us the AB we’ve grown to love and sometimes even lovingly hate.  In any case, either of those are AB’s we’re never, ever, ever bored by.

It’s only one episode so perhaps it will improve but right now we’re talkin’ snooze fest.  He spent an hour interviewing one of the more interesting NYC mayor candidates in recent memory, Bill  de Blasio and made him seem as exciting as Ben Stein interviewing himself on an off day.

Bueller

If you’re expecting Jack Donaghy, forget it – Mr. Baldwin now wants to be taken seriously.  He’s striving to be Charlie Rose but we want him to be Madame Rose (Note: that’s a Gypsy reference) taking us on a slightly eccentric tour of the world of politics and entertainment.  He instead seems bent on participating in a wonky policy discussion on raising taxes and funding education, all the while presenting his own ideas on what might work and not work alongside a real insider.  This would be akin to watching Mr. de Blasio trade comedic barbs with Tina Fey or 20 years ago starring on Broadway shirtless, as Mr. Baldwin did, opposite a pre-witchy Jessica Lange in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Okay, perhaps not quite that, but certainly a dull, dull, dull attempt at something that does not lend itself to his ample skills.

I might tune in next week when AB interviews Debra Winger but only because, well – how often do you get to see Debra Winger anywhere anymore???

And finally – if all else fails – I, and you, might just tune in to any:

RANDOM NEWS SHOWS 

Given where we are right now, this will never cease to be entertaining.

satan

Timely random items this week included:

  • Ben Carson, an African American man, an ultra right wing speechifier, a retired neurosurgeon, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (you can thank Dubya for that), this week calling Obamacare (nee the Affordable Care Act):  the worst thing to happen in this nation since slavery. 

With tidbits like those, you don’t need Gravity to send you to the moon.  Or space travel of any kind to make it feel like you live in a parallel universe.  Sometimes, what’s right in front of you, is all too punny enough.

The 7 Deadly Sins of Summer

Take a bite?

Take a bite?

Summer is over and it’s time to look at where we are and where we’re headed.

Actually, the summer doesn’t officially end until the start of fall, which is technically the last week of September. But in the US, it always seems to end right after the Labor Day weekend.  And why not?  What better way to signal the end of fun than a holiday that salutes the worker (who presumably have at least been given some kind of summer vacation) and falls on the last long 3-day weekend of the most carefree of our seasons?

Of course, when I was younger and a student, summer’s end coincided with the start of the school term or fall semester.  Which now happens mid-August if you attend or teach college or, even if you’re still in elementary school in some places.  That also used to coincide with the beginning of the fall television season.  But don’t get me started on when that begins because there aren’t really small screen seasons anymore.  Just nights and weekends where you can fit in TV binge viewing.  My personal theory is that binge viewing might be linked to global warming since it seems to be particularly inspired by unseasonably hot or cold weather – an everyday occurrence these days.  Which begs the question of there even being any sort of seasons at all (certainly not in L.A.).

Still, we soldier on.  Because more than anything else Americans cling to some traditions that, by any rational standards, have long and forever outlived their usefulness.

That being the case, this seems like a good moment to take stock of what sins have been committed, and where we are and how we move forward into Fall – as opposed to free-fall – since certainly we here at notes don’t want to outlive whatever usefulness we currently retain in the world.

LUST: SEX AND THE SINGLE MILEY

sigh.

sigh.

Never has so much been made of so little.  That’s actually a quote famously appropriated by the late actor David Niven when a naked guy streaked across the stage at the 1974 Oscar ceremonies.   But it applies here.

Like any parent, we don’t like to see our kids grow up and become sexual.  But when exactly is grown up enough for sexuality to be employed when it’s your own kid?  16, 18, 20, 25…50…or never?   I’m not a parent but if I were I’d have to vote for never.

If you don’t know about (or have never seen) the MTV VMAs, here’s the problem – former tween star and now 20-year-old recording artist Miley Cyrus did a song and dance number of her hit tune “We Can’t Stop” at the Video Music Awards last week where she rolled her tongue around like a snake charmer, bumping, grinding and (get your urban dictionary out) twerking across the stage against or dangerously close to the crotch area of tall, hunky and rappy 36-year-old male singer Robin Thicke, who has cultivated the oily persona of a studly, very well-endowed lothario in his hit song “Blurred Lines.” The latter may or may not be true in life, but who am I to say? Entertainment Weekly this week famously called it all a “teddy bear orgy” but, then again, who am I to say or even re-appropriate that phrase?

The bigger issue is this: we Americans are pretty hung up about sex, aren’t we?  Yes, I’m purposely including myself in that because while I was watching the Miley/Thicke spectacle (which I then re-watched several times) I groaned, called it gross, and was generally turned off – wondering why Hannah Montana felt compelled to become a fifth rate version of a Sunset Blvd. stripper on national television and why a guy who is height-advantaged, considered hot and, okay, some sort of talented (and is married to the very talented and very hot actress Paula Patton) felt the need to carouse onstage in front of an international audience with a girl young enough to be his…stepdaughter?

As if that wasn’t threatening enough to me and Middle America, he was wearing dark shades and dressed like a high class (if there is such a thing) pimp in a tighter version of the black and white vertical striped pants I wore to one of my own high school dances in the seventies in order to make me look taller.

Just don't say his name 3 times!

Just don’t say his name 3 times!

Certainly that has nothing to do with his involvement with Miley, as a very successful female writer friend of mine argued.  She’s (Miley) of age, she was (or still is?) engaged to be married and isn’t a Disney star any longer.  Why the international headlines?  Why can’t women own who they are?  Why are sexy girls given the scarlet letter when sexy guys are given the term of…well….stud, or even young buck?  In other words, what’s Miley to do?

She has a point, I suppose.  But had the dance moves been a little better, the routine a little more clever, or the 36 year-old guy a little bit more of…well, something…it all might have been sort of funny.  It wasn’t.  Nor was it the end of the world.  At the very least it’s the beginning of a new one for Ms. Cyrus.  Stay tuned to wherever it’s headed.  Which, odds are, has to be up.

GREED: MIDDLE EAST WARS, SYRIA – NOT Syriana

syria-political-map

Unfortunately, we have a tendency in the summer to see events through the lens of a popcorn movie, preferably a sequel.  In our minds, this reduces even political atrocities like the current mass nerve-gassing of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Syria by a power-hungry dictator to the Oscar-winning George Clooney movie Syriana, which didn’t even take place in Syria and, in fact, wasn’t even released in the summer.

Sadly, the realities revealed in the real Syria these past few weeks seem to be signaling the involvement of the United States in yet another awful geo-political struggle in the Middle East.  This is seen as unavoidable in some form by both sides of the political spectrum and surely signals the end of a carefree summer.

It is doubtful, however, whether even the best civics teacher could explain the pros and cons of this extremely complicated situation in ways in which those of us just emerging from the summer of ’13 (that’s 2013) could reliably understand.  Try as they might on network news, or on CNN, MSNBC and FOX (let’s list them all together and be fair and balanced here), it’s still not happening for those of us not in the know of these things.  Which really means – all of us.

The best I’ve come across is an article in this weekend’s Washington Post.  It breaks down the pros and cons of US involvement in Syria and gives a basic understanding of the political situation there in general.  Think of it as – Syria For Dummies.

(Note:  This title in no way meant to diminish the tragic circumstances.  It’s simply the strategy of good teaching: to make something digestible, first reduce to its simplest form and then begin to add layers).

GLUTTONY: DOWNTON ABBEY & YOU

Someone close to me likened the hit PBS series Downton Abbey to crack in its purest form.   As a faithful follower, I know this is so.  However, as a life long culture vulture, I’m not quite sure why the lives of the aristocrats living in a countryside British castle at the turn of the 20th century along with the servants who love and, well, serve them has such a hold on its worldwide audience.  Perhaps because it’s so different than the world in which we live in today.  Though the writing, acting, directing and castle itself could have something to do with it.

In any event, the fourth season starts being broadcast in England sometime this month and is set in the roaring twenties.  It will also introduce race into the equation with its first Black cast member, a singer in the traditional of jazz great Cab Calloway played by acclaimed British actor Gary Carr.  I suspect this is not just novelty casting but will be used as a way to continue to tell the story of the vast cultural shifts of the times as the upstairs-downstairs way of living slowly begins to unravel.

Hellllloooo Gary!

Hellllloooo Gary!

It should be noted that my students have a particularly hard time with the social mores shown in period pieces even though they are historically accurate.  For instance, I’ve given up even mentioning either the book or movie version of Gone With The Wind in class since the Mammy character and the sashaying young black maid seems to take them out of a story quicker than the foot and a half sized cell phone you see in early 1980s American films.   Yes, I know – those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.  You try telling them that.

Finally, DA does not officially premiere in the US until January 2014.  That’s a shame.  Given how connected the world is via social media and the rest of the web, it’s very difficult to wait four months without spoilers to begin a series that is, admittedly, a street drug.  Of course, you can get someone you know in London to send you DVDs that come out midway to late in the fall season.  Or you can do it another….no, I am NOT advocating that!  Am I?  Well, as Will Ferrell once joked on SNL, ‘Maybe I am and…maybe I am…”  (Note to law enforcement:  That’s a joke).

SLOTH: LAZINESS AND THE MOVIES

Do you smell that?

Do you smell that?

Someone has to say it – 2013 has generally been a crap year for movies.  Sorry, it has.  There were a few of good films.  But nothing great or particularly unusual.  I’m leaving out Fruitvale Station because people I trust really like it and I haven’t seen it yet.  Though I very much enjoyed The Spectacular Now and Cate Blachett was wonderful in Blue Jasmine even if the film as a whole somehow disappoints (uh yes, that’s just my opinion).

Still, there’s hope.  What I’m hearing through sources is that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are great being weightless in GravityInside Llewyn Davis is a very cool movie from the very cool Coen Brothers and two actors who were different kinds of movie stars in the seventies will be up for Oscars in two other films.  They are Robert Redford in a practically one-man tour de force in JC Chandor’s All Is Lost and Bruce Dern (yes, he’s Laura’s Dad) as the difficult father in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. 

I want to see all of these and many others I haven’t heard anything about.  But just as much I want to see Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of what happened when the writer of the Mary Poppins books, PL Travers, came to Hollywood and is finally convinced by Walt Disney to allow him to film her story.  Emma Thompson plays the writer and Tom Hanks plays Walt.  But that’s not why I care.  See, Mary Poppins was my favorite film as a child and I played the record endlessly on my little “victrola” (that’s what they called record players, sonny), at the turn of the century.

Do not write in and tell me you’re disappointed in me for wanting this film.  Or  — that I will be disappointed.  I know both already.

PRIDE: STRANGEST NEW FALL TV SEASON ENTRY

OK that's it.. I'm done.

OK that’s it.. I’m done.

I’m not going to belabor this.  Something called the DIY Network (it stands for Do It Yourself) is doing a reality show called Vanilla Ice Goes Amish.  In it, the king of nineties White Rap immerses himself in the Amish community to learn how they do construction work.  This will be an offshoot of the network’s current home renovation series, The Vanilla Ice Project.  And why not?  When I want to hear about how I break into the 2013 rap scene I’m going to call The Property Brothers.

ENVY: ME AND QUEEN JANE

Anyone who thinks 75 year-old actors have lost their looks, timing, talent and general star appeal need only watch Jane Fonda in the final scene of last week’s episode 7 of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  In just under four minutes, Ms. Fonda gives a master class in creativity and craft.  Alternately dramatic, funny, coquettish and powerful, she plays each moment to the hilt without ever going over the top or calling attention to herself beyond the requirements of the scene.  That’s rare in television acting and even more rare in the movies these days.  Newsroom star Jeff Daniels put it best in a recent interview:  She comes in prepared and you just watch 2,000 Oscars and 1,000 nominations work.

PS – Ms. Fonda has given immense credit to Aaron Sorkin’s writing for her bravura appearances. But as any writer knows, tour de force scenes such as these can go horribly wrong, especially when you don’t have exactly the right person acting them.  See, cause it’s all made up.  Stay tuned.

WRATH:  IT’S HOT!!!

This summer, which has not yet ended, is best summed up by Krissy Chula’s YouTube video rant of several days ago.  Yes, it’s a little raw.  But so was Richard Pryor.  I’m not saying she’s a star.  Yet.  But the video has gone viral and will soon be nearing 1,000,000 views.

The humor, the rage, the weather – it all speaks to where we are now – maybe at this very moment.

Or maybe… we’re here: