Sunday, January 29, 2006

Nanny McPhee

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Emma Thompson, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Some mild references to gas and some comic grossness

Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone kicked open the door to a new genre of family film: the comic-fantasy costume drama -- refined for the adults and yet visually dazzling and accessible for the kids. Nanny McPhee would have never existed had it not been for Potter's success. It is mannered yet naughty, proper yet gross, and very, very British. Credit Emma Thompson, who adapted the screenplay from the "Nurse Matilda" books of Christianna Brand. The film has an easily deduced Francis Movie Equation: Mary Poppins + Harry Potter + Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events / Sense & Sensiblity.

The film plunges us into early 19th-Century England and a beautiful countryside estate, where the seven obnoxious children of widower mortician Cedric Brown (Firth) have managed to drive out all 17 nannies sent to care for them. The nanny agency is fresh out. Their father -- who spends more time with the dead than his children and talks to his dead wife's empty chair -- needs to find someone else fast. He also needs a new wife, or his uptight great aunt (Lansbury) will cut him off from the money he and the children need to maintain their standard of living it up. A scullery maid, Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), observes all this with sympathy. She seems to be the only person who really connects with the children.

Cedric keeps hearing about a "Nanny McPhee." Hiring her is right difficult, mind you. She doesn't seem to work for any agency, and the kids cut her address out of the paper. But one night, McPhee (Thompson) mysteriously shows up at the door, an ugly Mary Poppins, warts and all. Maybe she works for the Wicked Witch of the West. Is she a good witch or a bad witch? Both, actually. All it takes is a tap of her magic staff to start the kids on the road to mending her ways. McPhee says she has five lessons to teach, and as the kids learn, it's not just their behavior that will start looking better... hint, hint.

Thompson gives her character dark and laconic charm, doing little more than grunting at times as she observes the family she is minding. It's fun just to watch McPhee disappear and reappear at will with the mannered explanation, "I did knock." But also charming is Lansbury, the snooty, snobby aunt who puts the crust in upper crust. Also enjoyable: Celia Imrie as Selma Quickley, the gaudy widow who is about to become the children's new stepmother, something that never amounts to anything good in every fairy tale we've been told.

And that's just what Nanny McPhee is: a fairy tale. It plays out like a bedtime story, full of color, morals, and naughty children who eventually learn the consequences of their actions. Emotionally, it is not deep outside of its happy ending. The film is so busy telling its story it doesn't give its characters much depth. Maybe it rips too much style from Mary Poppins.

Oh come now. You didn't worry about character development when you were snuggled up in bed, did you?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Truth, Lies, and Oprah Winfrey

Oprah did a big thing for a big media star. She admitted she was wrong. On Thursday's show, she apologized to her viewers for supporting recovering drug addict James Frey's so-called "memoir" A Million Little Pieces after he admitted several of those pieces were made up. She said she was sorry for calling Larry King to defend him. And as Winfrey grilled Frey over the course of an hour, more of his story went up in smoke.

But she didn't stop with Frey. She went after his boss, publisher Nan Talese, who explained the book was vetted, not fact-checked. For those of you outside the book business, that means the text wasn't scoured for accuracy but merely scanned to make sure it wouldn't get the publisher sued.

"Well, that needs to change," Oprah said.

Maybe it does. But I still pity Talese. She took a man at his word and got hung out to dry. Then again, how much trust can you put in a recovering dopehead? They've hurt their family, their friends, their co-workers and everybody within a reasonable radius. Trust must be earned. Taking his story at face value -- especially the now infamous bit about the no-novacaine root canal -- seems naive.

What should've happened and didn't was this: Talese should've sat Frey down, face to face, and said something along the lines of, "Mr. Frey, you have written a highly compelling and amazing work of non-fiction. And for all that's holy, it better be non-fiction. My company is devoting quite of bit of money and dead trees to putting your story into readers' hands. We will not be suckered. I want to know right now if there's any facts, scenes or memories you've stretched for the sake of more compelling copy. If there are, you have one chance to redeem yourself and rewrite them. If you tell us no and we find out otherwise, you will be dropped from our shelves like two-week old milk."

And as usual, we find warning signs were brushed aside. A drug counselor who worked at Frey's treatment center said parts of the book weren't true. But Random House backed Frey to the max, and that was good enough for Winfrey. It would have been good enough for a lot of us, if you're of the reasonable impression that a publishing giant wouldn't risk its reputation by hawking a made-up memoir. Then The Smoking Gun dug up more discrepencies. That should've been enough.

Yet Winfrey called into Larry King and called the allegations "much ado about nothing" -- even after Frey admitted moments earlier he'd made things up.

Oprah is a big-picture person. I'm sure she believed the totality of Frey's anti-drug message mattered more than some factual pockmarks. But what she forgot is how much honesty has been watered down as a virtue. Arizona Daily Star cartoonist David Fitzsimmons pointed out "The New Standard": "I agree with Oprah. He lied. Big deal. No troops died."

I don't want our kids -- or anybody else -- learning it's okay to make things up and call it the truth if you're serving some greater good. Substance abuse is ravaging enough without the need for hyperbole, so Frey didn't even need to spice things up. I don't want our media giants backing these people who think they can cheat and win. Oprah did the right thing, but a touch late. That call to Larry King should've put some heat on Frye's behind instead of lipstick.

What I want to see now is Frey get his story right on paper. Random House should recall all copies of "Pieces" that haven't sold and force Frey to rewrite the book, excising his excesses and presenting what really happened. When that revision hits shelves, the millions of people who bought the original text should have the opportunity to exchange it for the true story. They paid good money for what they thought was the truth. They deserve to get it.

And Oprah, I accept your apology, even if it is late. You've done too much good for others and owned up to your faults. But what took you so long?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

New Name, Old Stations, New Troubles

The UPN and WB television networks are merging to create the CW network this fall. Couldn't they have come up with a better name? "CW" flashes me back to my ham radio days. Maybe we should've added just one more letter -- like UWB? WBU?

But put that aside. While the merger is good for the guys at CBS (which owns UPN) and Time-Warner, it's going to be murder on their affiliates.

Here's the rub: WB and UPN both spent years building their affiliate bases. WB even created a cable-only network called the "WeB" to get into markets where they didn't have a broadcast outlet. A deal with Tribune put it on Chicago superstation WGN in the early years, giving it national coverage. UPN managed to scrape by with a hodge-podge of full-power affiliates, owned-and-operated stations, and several low-power affiliates that existed mainly to feed cable systems.

So after years of trying to get national coverage, we have numerous TV markets with both WB and UPN affilates. The question now is, who gets the new network?

Here in Tucson, we have UPN affilate KTTU and WB affiliate KWBA. I have no idea where CW is going, but this is what I see:

Scenario 1: KTTU gets CW. I'm putting my money on this one, mainly because of ownership. KTTU is owned by Belo, a powerful media company which also owns KMSB (Fox) in Tucson. Belo also runs the WB affiliate in Phoenix. I'm betting Belo will have enough corporate muscle to make deals in Tucson, Phoenix and maybe a few other markets. Never mind KTTU is mainly the second-run station for a lot of KMSB syndicated material along with more than a few informercials.

Scenario 2: KWBA gets CW. This could happen if Cascade Broadcasting argues KWBA has a higher profile in the community. It certainly can, even though it just ended its newscast partnership with KOLD. It has a recognizable personality in weather anchor/"Buzz" hostess Joan Lee. At one point, it was the WB's Station Of The Year. However, Cascade Broadcasting is not a major player. It's now only a two-station group, with outlets in Tucson and Louisville. It just sold a station in Oklahoma City.

Depending on where CW goes, that raises the question of what happens to the station left out in the cold. If KTTU were shunned, I'm thinking Belo would hold onto it as a true independent and use it as a re-run station. If KWBA is shunned, it might well cover the gaps with more syndicated programming or movies.

However, here's another possibilty. Maybe the losing station decides to flip to Spanish-language programming. It's certainly doable: Azteca America is on the air here, but on a puny low-power station nobody can see without cable. Univision and sister network Telefutura are both doing well here, and they have stations with the wattage to get them into homes. Telemundo is also doing all right. Azteca would love to have some of that pie.

Yet another possibility: a religious broadcaster like Daystar or TBN moves in, buys a station and flips to all God, all the time.

We shall see what happens in Tucson, but elsewhere, I wouldn't be surprised to see some UPN or WB affilates flip to Spanish, flip to religion, or flip off the transmitter entirely.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The New World

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Q'Orianka Kilcher
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Ye Olde Violence

Francis' Theory of Movie Equations states any new movie can be expressed as an equation of older ones. So take Dances With Wolves, add Titanic, multiply by Pocahontas, and divide by Memoirs Of A Geisha and the result is The New World, a trippy, skippy adventure short on dialogue and long on ambience. The title might lead you to think it's another period-piece adventure, focusing on the settlement of Jamestown and the romance between the formentioned Indian princess and Captain John Smith. It is, and it isn't.

Director Terrence Malick explores uncharted territory of the soul as his characters explore the vast wildnerness and danger of early America. The New World is more about love than land, which explains why so much of the story of Jamestown is glossed over: the population of the settlement with too many gentlemen and not enough laborers, the disasterous first winter where dozens died, and efforts to make glass. Wait, that last one isn't mentioned at all. If you want authenticity on the English side, go somewhere else -- like Jamestown Settlement in Virginia.

The story revolves around Smith's (Farrell) romance with Pocahontas (Kilcher), who as we know, saved Smith from execution by Powhatan tribal members. But this is no Disney movie. The natives -- or "naturals" as the film refers to them -- are portrayed exceptionally well down to them not speaking a word of English. The awkward first encounters between the settlers and the natives are filled with authentic tension and dread. Pocahontas, though loved deeply by her tribal king father, eventually falls out of favor for giving too much comfort and aid to the settlers. Smith, likewise, gets into trouble over fancying a natural.

The film is filled with grandeur, hyphenated by flashes of thought and snapshots of joy. At times it plays like a rock video. At times it plays like a memoir, with characters narrating the story as if they were writing letters back home to England. We see several takes of Pocahontas skipping through the fields, dancing among the natives, doing cartwheels on the lawn. And yet an early sequence of the colonists discovering the land that would be their home holds long without dialogue, underscored by a musical cresendo from James Horner, conveying to us the awesome wonder the settlers must have felt upon seeing the greenery of colonial Virginia.

To call The New World an historical epic doesn't fit, for it is neither completely historical nor epic. It is more of a scrapbook with pieces stiched together. Films with historic themes can easily drift into tedium when filmmakers feel obligated to stick to the textbook. Malick does not, and while you may not care for that approach, you certainly won't be bored.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

If You Can Walk...

Making History, Making Merry, Making Up For The Past

Oh no. Not now.

My eyes locked on the barren patch of brown fabric where a gold button used to be. How did I not see that on the coat before I walked out of the costume shop? This beautiful brown and blue colonial outfit with the matching breeches, waistcoat and shirt now had a gap as obvious as a missing piece from a jigsaw puzzle, one high up near the collar where others would surely notice it.

I searched for the precious button all over the motel room floor. I dashed back out to the car and felt through the trunk. Dejected, I returned to the room. Sigh. Just another thing to worry about as I prepared for Her Majesty’s Royal Court Ball, an event in Mesa 100 miles away from home and 200 years in the past -- a night of 18th Century fashion, courtly manners, bows and curtsies, and lots of period dancing as organized by the Phoenix-area re-enactment organization “We Make History.”

In the shower I worked on a way to fit it into my character. The night before, an e-mail newsletter suggested we might all want to adopt a noble title. Knowing almost nothing of royal rank, I crammed information into my head from a furious Google search. I adopted the title of Viscount Francis -- below an Earl, above a Baron. I’d hashed out a backstory for my historical character: a nobleman who had returned to Europe after traveling in the colonies.

My chosen outfit would make me appear more soldier than gentleman, but I hadn’t worked out that discrepancy. I still had to figure out the button part… a-ha. I had traveled long and far by carriage, and because of delays in my transportation and the hurry to arrive in time for the festivities, a button fell loose and disappeared with no time for a fix. That wasn’t far from the truth: traffic outside Phoenix had mysteriously slowed to a crawl in some stretches.

But then came a miracle. The errant button had landed in the cuff of the coat, and it fell out as I slipped into costume. I dug out an emergency sewing kit from my travel bag and quickly re-attached it with a safety pin. The puzzle was solved!

Now came the first long walk of the night: from the motel room to the car in the full regalia, topped with my white-trimmed tricorn. I had parked as close as possible to the room to avoid awkward encounters, but I might still run into a few wide-eyed guests.

“Do not be alarmed if you see a man in colonial attire walking down the steps,” I advised the desk clerk upon check-in.

I made the walk quickly. Only one person spotted me: a man walking from the pool. But he slowed not a step. I saluted him. He saluted back.

My ride rolled up to the Fitch Center’s gym -- the ballroom for this occasion -- a quarter before six… fifteen minutes before the official arrival time. I sat in the car and peered through the open door, not wanting to walk in too early.

I got out after a few minutes of nervous anticipation.

This is it, I thought. No going back now. You said you couldn't have a do-over, but you could have a do-right.

* * *

Through four years of high school, I had a lot on my agenda: grades, getting into college, competing with the speech and debate team, and moving with my family from Kansas City to St. Louis between my junior and senior years.

Prom did not make the list. That landmark of the high school experience meant as much to me as a class ring at a time when I didn’t even wear a watch. Acquiring a date seemed an insurmountable task. I had learned to live without a girlfriend back in middle school, when puberty, cliques and open hostility towards nerds conspired to shove me into the outer circle.

I took the blame for that -- too out of touch, too nerdy, too smart, too shy. And although my friends on the debate team admired me, the desirable girls there were taken.

I couldn’t dance, either.

Maybe in another age, somebody would have insisted I learn the social graces of movement, but those days were gone. Even dancing at a couple of weddings in the family with some guidance from a relative felt awkward.

Square dancing in middle-school gym class filled me with dread. Girls hated me. They only joined their hands to mine because a teacher made them. Other boys would snicker at my unlucky partner, forced to cavort with some virus on legs.

By high school, the square dances ceased. But the damage was done, shadowing any thought of more frolicking in sets and figures. And here I had come, two decades later, to do exactly that same thing again.

* * *

“Greetings!” chimed Lord Scott in his light-blue colonial outfit as I entered through what I thought was the front door.

“Christopher Francis of Tucson,” I replied, slipping into my clipped British accent, removing my hat, and doing my best 18th Century bow before the master of ceremonies.

“So glad you could make it,” he welcomed and directed me to the front desk where I could check in.

I spent the next hour acquainting myself with people who strolled in. A kind gentleman had nothing but encouragement for me upon hearing this was my first ball, advising me not to be shy in asking a lady for a dance. I met a couple and their son from Prescott, also newcomers, and mingled with a group involved in Arizona student government. Topping things off, the lady of honor for this ball, Her Majesty, gladly offered to pose with me for a picture (at left).

“We don’t usually start slipping into character until 7:00,” Lord Scott advised. “But you may start early, if you wish.” I was already into my accent full throttle.

The musicians -- a piano player and a flutist -- tuned up as various people dressed from various points on the timeline strolled in. Eighteenth-century nobility in wigs and tricorns mixed with a Renaissance maiden or two. Fine ladies in floral ball gowns stood by musketeers. Revolutionary War patriot soldiers made it in, and fortunately for them, no redcoats were after them. A Spanish swordsman kept his weapon in check as a few characters from the Victorian era entered, along with some modern-day folks in tuxes. A Confederate Soldier emerged. So did a lone representative of WWII, and though neither were officially in the ball’s time frame, nobody minded. Children of all ages milled about the crowd, including the young princesses, eager to get started.

At 7:00, Lord Scott called us together for the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem, a nod to the country whose heritage we were celebrating. And then the hands of time turned.

“Going back in time, one century, two centuries…”

Lord Scott introduced himself and Her Majesty, and the dancing began with an elegant promenade.

“Line yourselves up according to rank!”

Rank? Where does a viscount fit in this line? Nobody had told me any titles. People were forming in front of me. I had no partner. I couldn’t walk alone. In the nick of time, I spotted a young lady standing alone and bowed to her. She happily accepted my invitation.

We stepped hand in hand about the gym into various figures snaking about and around like a maze, ending in a full circle, but nothing fancy. My fears about colonial dancing evaporated.

Then the country dances began, the ones like square dances with the sets and figures and fancy moves led by a caller who would walk us through a dance slowly and then let us get to it.

The first dance, "Haste To The Wedding," seemed familiar. And as I went through the motions, I realized I’d done it before…

* * *

My education in English country dance began two years ago at Colonial Williamsburg with a simple guideline.

"If you can walk, you can dance," said the historical interpreter, dressed in period costume. "And if you move quickly, I can prove it to you.”

He lined us up in the ballroom of the Governor’s Palace midway through a tour. The rows of men and women faced each other. I stood near the end of my row, eyes trained on my camcorder’s viewfinder.

"A one couple, a two couple," he counted us off, his hands spread apart, marking the sets. "The evening starts and you all have been dancing forever, so you know what to do."

Our costumed guide explained to us that if somebody called out a dance we didn’t know, an explanation would kindly follow upon request.

"Oh it’s simple. Right hands across, left hands back, circle left, circle right, do-si-do, clap twice, two-hand turn your partner, turn to your neighbor, do-si-do, clap twice, start all over again. And you’re like, 'Is that all?' And you would do it."

And we were about to.

"Right hands across, which means across!"

I flicked off the camera and he led us through it, calling out the steps and humming in place of an orchestra. And unlike the square dances of my youth, I enjoyed it –- no vibes of animosity or hints of snickering.

I had wanted to try it earlier in the day, while watching a costumed group of women perform outside on a mild, sunny day. I didn’t get a chance, but I did learn my 18th Century honors: a bow over my strong leg, as coached to the audience by a Colonial Williamsburg dancing interpreter.

"It’s important for all of us to learn and practice our honors," she said.

* * *

The dances grew more complex, even with the help of a wonderful and patient caller. New steps were introduced and new figures thrown into the mix. I changed partners after every number, easily finding willing ladies.

Some dances deteriorated into confusion. “The Doubtful Shephard” threw us all through a loop with serpentine moves we couldn’t quite nail down after repeated attempts. We laughed it off, improvising simpler steps. No wonder that shepherd was doubtful.

Moments of levity worked their way in. At one point, the ladies cast one shoe into the middle of the floor as the gentlemen looked away. And then, on command, we scrambled for the footwear, grabbing the first shoe we could and searching out our Cinderella for a new partner.

That next dance, “Christchurch's Bells,” marked the high point: simpler figures done over and over again. All of us quickly mastered it and soon the caller stopped calling, leaving us to enjoy the piano and flute and prance merrily about one another, having the moves down by heart, just as it was in colonial times.

"Now you're dancing!" the caller exclaimed.

In those joyous moments, as I skipped among the dancers, the notion I was in a gym fell away. No basketball nets, no lines on the floor, no fluorescent lights, no PA system. I might have been dancing in 1700’s Williamsburg or London or Paris. I threw a few flourishing moves in -- a twirl here and there.

Although my heart wanted more, my lungs wanted a break, and my costume didn’t allow much ventilation. When the dance concluded, sweat trickled down my forehead. I only sat out one number while some gracious ladies lent me their fans as they spotted me cooling down.

Several breaks with an offering of punch and cookies gave us more time to relax and mingle. I managed to stay in my British accent through every conversation I had. Speaking was the easy part. Finding stylish and elevated words befitting a nobleman required much brainpower.

I forgot all about my self-appointed title of Viscount. I was simply “Mr. Francis,” to His Lordship and all others. I found it more than fitting. I had trouble imagining myself as both noble and newcomer whilst surrounded by many other newcomers, all learning steps more than two centuries old, all eager to smile through our mistakes.

“At this point, the spirit of the dance is more important than the steps of the dance,” I said to comfort a lady who felt a tad embarrassed at the mistakes she had made.

Not one lady refused me for a dance when I sought one out.

Not one.

Not one even used the perfectly acceptable excuse of sitting a dance out. I honestly felt they enjoyed my partnership, and I was quick to bow to each one of them after every dance with words of compliment:

“Thank you for a most enjoyable dance.”

“You are a wonderful dancer!”

“Your enthusiasm is most kind!”

They would smile and graciously return the honors.

Her Majesty’s Royal Court Ball ended just as it should have, with a slow waltz with “your favorite partner.” I again sought out a lone lady.

“I have to warn you,” I advised, “you may have to lead me a little.”

It turned out we were both a little fuzzy on the steps. But it didn’t matter. We waltzed around the floor as best we could, enjoying each others conversation and company, myself admiring her exquisite purple ball gown and doing my best not to step on it.

I once again thanked Lord Scott before I left, and he returned it with more gratitude for my long trip from Tucson.

“Was the evening everything you anticipated?”

“Much more,” I replied.

Five hours after I had slipped into the 18th Century, the moment had come to return to my “own place and time.” With more goodbyes to newfound friends, I walked back to my car and made the drive back to the hotel in silence, reflecting upon the evening and its significance in my life so far. I felt like a better person, someone more well-mannered and wiser, and I didn't want to let go of it.

I had taken the next step, gone beyond dressing for Halloween as a Patriot. A lot of people could willingly play Rebels and Redcoats. But could they pull off “Strip The Willow?”

In the late hour, I didn’t run into anybody else between the car door and my room door. I slipped out of my colonial attire and began sewing up the button temporarily secured by the safety pin. The needle didn’t want to go where I needed, and I had to settle for a couple of loose stitches. I bagged everything up as instructed by the costume shop and took one more look.

Oh no.

Shouldn’t there be another button on that coat pocket?

* * *

The afterglow of the evening hindered my sleep. Joy still flowed through every part of me, hours after the fact. The piano and flute echoed through my head. I tossed and flopped on the loose sheets of the motel room bed. At least it was my own. At a colonial inn, I probably would have ended up sharing a bed with somebody, having paid for a discount room.

Seven A.M. came and I rousted myself after a restless night. I dressed quickly, checked out, and made the two-hour drive back to Tucson on the power of two glasses of orange juice. My own bed in my own time stood waiting, a place to crash and find true rest.

My feet ached to be left alone. My right calf throbbed, forcing me to limp for two days afterward. It must have been that jig we did. But next time, my legs will be stronger.

And there will be a next time. George Washington's Birthday Ball is just weeks away.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Tucson's News Queen?

David Hatfield's latest column in Inside Tucson Business raised my eyebrows. Here's the first few grafs:

Crown KOLD 13 and Kris Pickel the ratings victors

The race is over. The results have been tabulated. Now the victor can be crowned. In the battle among the big three local TV stations for news ratings supremacy, Kris Pickel and the News 13 team won, according to the latest ratings taken by Nielsen Media Research Nov. 3 through 30 and just recently released.

Since its breakthrough in February 2004, KOLD appears to be on a hot ratings streak.

Ahh, but ... coming up fast is Jennifer Waddell. In her debut as the lead female anchor on KGUN 9, the station's 10 p.m. newscast registered a 50 percent increase in viewers ages 25-54 year-old over a year ago. That age group is the primary target stations and, more importantly, the lion's share of advertising dollars.

There are a lot of variables that contribute to winning ratings. Some of KGUN's increases might be attributable to higher numbers locally for ABC's primetime programs but probably Waddell can rightfully be given some credit.

Meanwhile, declining fortunes continue to plague once-dominant KVOA 4's Eyewitness News. Nobody can blame Kristi Tedesco for the station's losses. Among 25-54 year-olds viewing was off in every weekday newscast, including those she doesn't anchor. KVOA is down 17 percent at 10 p.m., down 39 percent at 6 p.m., down 6 percent at 5 p.m., down 30 percent at noon and down 9 percent in the 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. slot.

Thanks, David! Kris and I both emphasize we can't do it all, not without our (heaping praise alert) wonderful staff. Pass those crowns around.

Actually, I don't look too bad in a crown. But I'll stick to my tricorn.

Monday, January 9, 2006

Fashionably Late

Here's a missing sock story that beats anything from the laundry room: The knee-length socks I ordered as part of a colonial outfit for Halloween have arrived -- three months later. The official explanation was they were back-ordered. (The outfit you see in the masthead was a rental from a couple of years back and I needed something new and different.) Amazingly, I found some suitable stockings at Wal-Mart to cover my legs. But I didn't forget. Neither did CelebrateAmerica Costumes. Thanks for coming through, folks! Those socks got here just in time for an event this coming weekend (stay tuned).

Day-O(h My Word)

UNICEF says Harry Belafonte was speaking for himself, not for us as a goodwill ambassador when he called President Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world" in front of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. No comment from them about those other comments, like: "we're here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people ... support your (Chavez') revolution."

Does Belafonte have their names and addresses? Did he get them from the NSA's secret wiretapping program?

Goodwill ambassador... ha.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

The Producers

How It Rates: ***
Starring: Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sex Jokes, Mild Language

The Producers is a remake of a remake -- a Mel Brooks movie turned smash Broadway musical turned Broadway movie musical. In the translation from screen to stage to screen again, we see again why many stage musicals are great movie musicals and many aren't.

This film yearns to have fun, and it largely succeeds, but it's out of its element. On stage, over-the-top elements are what musical comedies thrive on. On screen, they just look over the top. Case in point: a number where several little 'ol ladies fall over in their walkers like a line of dominoes. I'm sure that was a sidesplitter in a live performance. On film it's just trippy.

For those who have seen neither the 1968 original nor the Broadway reincarnation featuring both Lane and Broderick in the title roles: Max Bialystock (Lane) is a washed-up 1940's Broadway producer one footlight away from bankrupcy. His new show, "Funny Boy" -- a musical version of Hamlet -- has just tanked. In steps accountant Leo Bloom (Broderick) to help with his books. Leo, wondering out loud, notices that it's possible for a theatrical producer to make more money off a flop show than a hit, if the show closes quickly and costs less than what investors have put into it. Aha! Max and Leo hatch a scheme to wildly oversell investments in a show so awful, so offensive, it has to close in one night.

They find what appears to be a sure-fire flop in "Springtime For Hitler," poised as a "gay romp" with Der Fuhrer. Will Ferrell is the play's author -- a goose-stepping, leiderhosen-wearing, pigeon-raising neo-Nazi "kraut." Now to find a rotten director. A gay romp deserves nothing less than a flagrantly flaming Roger De Bris (Gary Beach). And for the straight folks, we have Ulla (Thurman), a Swedish bombshell hired as a production secretary who can shake it all over the office (a part not in the original film). Alas, the opening night disaster so carefully plotted fails to materialize as a stunned audience finds more satire than shock value in a singing and dancing Hitler and chorus line of Nazi stormtroopers.

Lane, a stage pro, clearly owns this film. Broderick is a capable singer but lacks his co-star's comic flair and polish. I kept thinking back to how well Gene Wilder pulled off Leo's character in the original film. Thurman is surprisingly good in her role, almost enough for me to forget it's a needless tack-on. Beach and Ferrell are simply hilarious. All these preformances amplify Broderick's weaknesses, and I think the film could have gotten away with trimming a sequence with Ulla and Leo late in the film. The two of them -- and Lane's charater -- both have one musical number too many which adds a lot of dead weight to the third act of the picture.

Mel Brooks (who wrote the book, music and lyrics but didn't direct) buries some inside jokes -- or recycled ones -- for his fans in the film. I counted at least four gags borrowed from Blazing Saddles. Well, if you're going to rip, at least rip from your best material. But Brooks shouldn't have to rip. He is one of the comic masters of the 20th Century and I hate to think he's running out of gas.

Friday, January 6, 2006

Add This To The Mix

I'm absolutely loving the iPod Nano I got for Christmas. But could somebody add a crossfade feature, just like in iTunes and Windows Media Player? (Or have I just not found it yet?)

On To The Next Target

I posted the following on BuzzMachine in response to the uproar over NBC's "The Book Of Daniel."


Only yesterday the extreme religious right complained about people taking Christ out of Christmas.

Now that the holidays are over, they’re moving on to the next target. Helluva way to start the new year.

What ARE these people afraid of? That the whole of America will suddenly hold devout Christians up to mockery and ridicule because of a little ‘ol TV show? That suddenly our collective image of Christ will warp into some tripped-out caricature? It’s gonna take a lot more than that…

If the show is a chunk of fertilizer, it will collapse under the weight of its own vileness. We shouldn’t have to hear anybody tell us that, and especially before the first showing. It’s certainly all right to have worries and concerns, but give the show a fair shot. Thank goodness the bosses at Mormon-owned KSL have enough tolerance.

And let us not forget this: not one but TWO TV movies recently aired on the late great Pope John Paul II. Christianity is certainly no cheap laugh for the networks… especially when so many of the stars of said religion do it so well themselves:

Oral Roberts (lost many stations after the infamous “God will call me home” speech, claimed to see a gigantic Jesus behind his City Of Faith in Tulsa)
Pat Robertson (not on Hugo Chavez’ Christmas card list this year, by any means… and hey, did you hear what he said about Sharon’s stroke?)
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (you know the story)
Jimmy Swaggart (his episode with a hooker in a motel room brought new meaning to the term “lay ministry”)

Thankfully, all of this is countered by the dedicated TV ministries of Dr. Robert Schuller (who recently stepped down, bless him) and Billy Graham. And let us not forget the late great Mr. (Fred) Rodgers — how many of us knew he was a Presbyterian minister? — or Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, whose oratory trancended denominations.

Yeah, TV’s full of saints and sinners. Shouldn’t we be used to figuring out who’s who by now?

We'll Try This Again

A new year, an old blog. A new attitude, same old slacky habits. A new resolution to blog more, an old suspicion about the follow-through. Start your watches. Mark your calendars. We'll see how long this one lasts.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Memoirs Of A Geisha

How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Gong Li
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Two Sex Scenes

A geisha does not sell her body, we are told, only her art: providing entertainment and conversation for Japanese men, many of whom are stuck in arranged marriages. And yet it's the geisha's life that is also arranged, with its rules and expectations. Affection is superficial and serves only the requirements of the job. They are prostitutes who do not dispense sex and yet are denied the chance to seek true love.

This is the story of Chiyo, sold into slavery as a 9-year-old girl in pre-World War II Japan. Her new mistress runs a geisha house, and Chiyo is soon introduced to the mysterious trade, while seeking out a sister who was taken from her at the time she was sold. So much of Memoirs is better if I dispense with plot details, although I will tell you Chiyo faces a rival geisha who lives under the same roof. As Chiyo hones her skills, she is seeking out the man who offered her the equivalent of a popsicle, the one man she longs for out of love.

Rob Marshall (Chicago) directs with efficiency and beauty. So many shots in this film are wonderfully lit and composed, making the picture a shoo-in for Oscar nods in cinematography and art direction. If I have one quarrel with the film, it's that a little too much mystery surrounds the life of a geisha and its expectations, and I would've liked a little more set up.

But it's hard not to get absorbed in this film with its awesome visuals and John Williams score, featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The geisha is a moving work of art, one scene explains. So is this film.