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Monthly Archives: December 2011

From the New York Times: “Amazon’s Jungle Logic”…

An op-ed in The New York Times discusses Amazon’s holiday assault on brick-and-mortar bookstores. It’s a Scrooge left hook, followed by a Grinch uppercut, leading to a Mr. Potter TKO.

I first heard of Amazon’s new “promotion” from my bookseller daughter, Emily, in an e-mail with the subject line “Can You Hear Me Screaming in Brooklyn?” According to a link Emily supplied, Amazon was encouraging customers to go into brick-and-mortar bookstores on Saturday, and use its price-check app (which allows shoppers in physical stores to see, by scanning a bar code, if they can get a better price online) to earn a 5 percent credit on Amazon purchases (up to $5 per item, and up to three items).       

This promotion has received a good deal of negative press. Chamber of Commerce of Eastern  Connecticut President Tony Sheridan called it a “new low” and a “slap in the face to all small business owners.” Sam Hall at Amazon disagreed.

“We are enabling customers to use the Price Check app to share  in-store prices while they search for the best deals,” (Hall said). “This is a powerful  opportunity for customers to get involved and ensures Amazon customers  get the best possible prices.”

It’s not new for a store to offer to match or even beat the price offered at a competitor, but those are usually fairer battles. Small retailers aren’t in the same weight class as Amazon, which like Wal-Mart can afford to lower prices for the time it takes to crush the competition.

Another example of the app in action:

Valerie Lewis opened the slender book, cradled it lovingly in her hands and began to read a story about a bear who lost his hat. As co-owner of Hicklebee’s Books in Willow Glen, she has done this a thousand times.

Then Lewis turned the book over and allowed a visitor with an iPhone to scan the bar code using Amazon’s Price Check app. Within seconds, the Amazon price popped up: $9.59. “Let’s see what Hicklebee’s has it for,” Lewis said, then pointed to the amount imprinted on the book jacket: $15.99.

A clerk standing nearby was unable to resist mentioning the obvious — that Amazon would probably ship the book free and not charge any sales tax, further increasing its $6.40 price advantage over the venerable San Jose children’s bookstore.

Complaints in the press and on Facebook status message aside, I’m sure Amazon’s promotion wil be a succes. The U.S. consumer is the ultimate mob wife: She knows something’s up — it’s all a little suspicious — but she doesn’t ask questions.

I’m a Kindle user — I even read comics on an app these days — but in my younger and more vulnerable days, I haunted physical bookstores. My favorite was Gotham Books in Manhattan, which Katharine Hepburn described as the “greatest bookstore in New York and thus the world” (I think… the exact quote is on the bookmark you got when you bought a book there and all my books are currently in storage). I watched as my homes from home slowly closed one by one. Their replacements were the mammoth Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks, Books-A-Million, Book Hut, and so on. They had a wider selection but were antiseptic with employees who either didn’t have the time or the ablity to talk to you about a book you might want to purchase. There was little passion in those stores. Once we accepted that, we were bound to embrace Amazon, which is now intent on wiping out the remaining bookstores with the same cold ruthlessness as Michael Corleone eliminating the competing families in “The Godfather.”

This might be the path of the future but I guess I wonder what’s the rush? Amazon reminds me of the loathsome heir to a family fortune standing over his mother on her death bed, silently willing her to croak sooner rather than later. With its price-check app, Amazon now goes as far as to smother smaller retailers with a pillow.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in Capitalism

 

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Recurring Feature (at least until I tire of it): “Things I Do to Depress Myself” or “The Legacy of George Lucas”…

Top-Grossing Films of 1971

1. Fiddler on the Roof  $38,261,000

2. The French Connection  $32,500,000

3. Summer of ’42 $26,315,000

4. Diamonds Are Forever $20,500,000

5. Dirty Harry $19,727,000

6. Carnal Knowledge $18,000,000

7. A Clockwork Orange $17,000,000

8. Klute $14,075,000

9. The Last Picture Show $13,100,000

10. Bedknobs and Broomsticks*  $11,426,000

I was surprised to see “Clockwork Orange” on this list. I can’t conceive of the film being made today and if it was, it would never have a national release in enough theaters to rank among the top-grossing films of the year. The re-release of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” with Angela Lansbury is the only overtly family film. Aside from arguably “Diamonds are Forever,” the rest are movies strictly for adults or ones that parents might consider taking their kids along with them if they’re old enough, but none are the amusement park ride movies of today designed for kids and their parental chauffeurs.

Top-Grossing Films of 1981

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark $384,562,121

2. On Golden Pond $119,285,432

3. Superman II  $108,185,706

4. Arthur $95,461,682

5. Stripes $85,297,000

6. The Cannonball Run $72,179,579

7. Chariots of Fire $58,972,904

8. For Your Eyes Only $54,812,802

9. The Four Seasons $50,427,646

10. Time Bandits $42,365,581

“Superman II” is a sequel, but otherwise, it’s a still diverse selection of comedies, dramas, and action films.

Top-Grossing Films of 1991

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day $519,843,345

2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves $390,493,908

3. Beauty and the Beast $377,350,553

4. Hook $300,854,823

5. The Silence of the Lambs $272,742,922

6. JFK $205,405,498

7. The Addams Family  $191,502,426

8. Cape Fear $182,291,969

9. Hot Shots! $181,096,164

10. City Slickers $179,033,791

People continue to debate whether eventual Best Picture winner “The Silence of the Lambs” is a creepy drama or a very good horror movie. I fall in the latter camp. “Beauty and the Beast,” essentially a cartoon musical, has more in common with 1971’s “Fiddler” than 2001’s “Shrek.” The biggest film of the year is a sequel, and we have our first entry based on TV show — back when the mid-60s was 25 years behind us rather than the mid-80s. We also see more disposable movies — you’d think “Robin Hood” and “Hook” were bombs based on the number of people with positive experiences of them.

Top-Grossing Films of 2001

1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone $974,733,550

2. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring  $870,761,744

3. Monsters, Inc. $525,366,597

4. Shrek  $484,409,218

5. Ocean’s Eleven  $450,717,150

6. Pearl Harbor $449,220,945

7. The Mummy Returns $433,013,274

8. Jurassic Park III $368,780,809

9. Planet of the Apes $362,211,740

10. Hannibal $351,692,268 $165,092,268

Everything listed is either a sequel or a remake, except for “Pearl Harbor,” “Monsters, Inc.” (sequel on the way), and “Shrek” (enough already!) “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” are what I call “sequels from the start,” as they are event movies that are intended to have multiple installments.

Top-Grossing Films of 2011

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2  $1,328,111,219

2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon $1,123,196,189

3. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides $1,043,871,802

4. Kung Fu Panda 2 $663,024,542

5. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 $633,500,000

6. Fast Five $626,137,675

7. The Hangover Part II $581,464,305

8. The Smurfs  $562,158,353

9. Cars 2 $551,850,875

10. Rio $484,635,760

So, no dramas, one comedy (in theory), four cartoons (five, if you count the theoretical comedy), and eight sequels. The new “film series within a film series” concept (“Harry Potter” and “Twilight”) amuses me: Four to five hours to watch a film adaptation of a book that could probably be read in half that time.

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in Pop Life

 

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“Charlie Said It Would!”…

Twenty years ago, my old archnemesis, Charlie Gertz, retired from WYFF, the local NBC affiliate in Greenville, SC. We had a complex relationship. He was the station’s meteorologist — a fancy title for weatherman some might argue, but it does require more of a scientific aptitude than Nicholas Cage movies might have you believe.

Gertz’s slogan was “Charlie Said It Would,” which referred to his accurate predictions of the weather, but his record involving the occasional rainstorm meant nothing to me. All that mattered was whether it snowed when he said it was going to snow.

The man who was out-"Meteorologisted" by my mother.

Snow Days are magical events for kids. They are less joyous for adults who have to work, especially in the South where it snows rarely and the public reaction to it is overblown. The roads are clogged prior to potential snowfalls with residents desperate to clear the grocery store shelves of milk and bread. Snow in Greenville, if it stuck to the ground at all, lasted about eight minutes but people still feared that they might resort to cannibalism if they did not adequately stock up before the “blizzard.”

The best scenario was for the “winter storm warning” to be so dire that they closed schools the night before. That’s when your Monday turned into Friday night. If they closed the schools in the morning, my father just wouldn’t wake me, and the sound of him leaving indicated my freedom.

My father woke me for school each morning at exactly 6:45 a.m. This was without fail. My father never took sick days. And he never had Snow Days. Those mornings were not easy for my father — curled up in bed, I could hear him scraping the ice off his crap car’s windshield. Then came the painful death rattle of this piece of junk trying to turn over in the cold — “bruda, bruda, bruda,” it wheezed. My father was undaunted and tried again. “Bruda, bruda, bruda,” it croaked. I pulled my pillow closer to me, rolled over on my side, and thought, “That’s a damn shame.”

Somehow, after mutliple attempts, my father would get his 1972 Plymouth Scamp running (no, really) and head off in the snow. Until its eventual collapse in the mid-80s, that insult to automobiles everywhere is what my father took to and from work each day. My mother drove the family car, which had modern conveniences such as air conditoning, a tape player, and brakes. The parking lot at my father’s job looked like “Sanford and Son” with all the men in their jalopies.

One night I recall quite vividly, Charlie Gertz announced an oncoming snowstorm that would level Greenville with up to a foot of snow. He looked directly at me through the TV set and said, “There’s nothing to do tomorrow but just watch the snow fall. ‘Cause it’s gonna!” Then he winked at the camera, and that wink said, “Hey, Stephen, screw your homework! Stay up late! Enjoy tomorrow’s ‘Young and the Restless.’ I don’t know what your father was thinking, getting married, having kids, driving a car Fred Flintstone would consider beneath him. But you can’t worry about him. Life is for the living!”

I was escastic. My mother was less so.

“That’s nonsense,” she proclaimed. “It only ever snows here if it the storm comes through Georgia. If it comes from North Carolina, the mountains will stop it. You’re going to have school tomorrow.”

“Whatever, Dr. Robinson,” I replied dismissively. “Charlie said it would, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to shoot some heroin and dance with strippers, tomorrow’s a Snow Day! Actually, I’m probably just going to stay up late reading comics and listening to Madonna and the Eurythmics, but my point holds: Snow Day, baby!”

The next morning, at exactly 6:45 a.m., my father knocked on my door.

“Time to get up, son.”

Clearly, the old man had gone mad. Didn’t he know it was a Snow Day? I was already wearing the fake Victor Newman mustache I’d received as a Secret Society member of the “Young and the Restless” fan club.

I rushed to the window, expecting to see a carpet of white on the ground, but there was only green grass.

Falling to my knees, I vowed revenge against Charlie Gertz for his treachery. He was probably taking kickbacks from the grocery stores. I also swore that once I was out of school, I’d never get up at 6:45 a.m. again.

Gertz retired in 1992 — through only minor machinations on my part. I graduated high school the same year and proceeded to spend my late teens and most of my 20s making good on my second vow. I took afternoon classes in college and worked nights during my first few years in New York. Sometime around my 30th birthday, though, I started rising at 6:45 a.m. without an alarm. You can’t escape heredity, I suppose.

 

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Pop Life, Social Commentary

 

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The Non-Passion of the Romney…

Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor with the alliterative Stan Lee-inspired name, made the following ringing endorsement of presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Iowa:

“If you’re looking for a candidate who agrees with you on everything, buy a mirror,” Christie told a crowd of about 150 at the headquarters of the Kum & Go convenience store chain. “I’m out here to tell you that I’m supporting him because I believe he’s the best qualified person to be president, and I believe he’s the only Republican who can win.”

The Romney campaign’s concern is that GOP primary voters’ passion is drifting toward Newt Gingrigh, who is surging in recent polls of early voting states. This is problematic as Gingrich is a trainwreck of a candidate — saddled with the baggage of an aging drag queen going on a two-month cruise to the Bahamas. A polarizing figure, he regulars ranks as “Republican Democrats Least Want to Have a Beer With Unless It Contained Arsenic” and that includes George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, whose “folksy” charm he lacks. Considering that defeating the incumbent president would involve persuading a good number of the people who voted for Obama in 2008 to switch camps, that’s an issue.

Although Christie trumpets Romney’s electability, GOP primary voters have consistently rejected it at the polls. And while it will serve as no consolation to the former Massachusetts governor, the reality is that as fickle as primary voters have been with their passions — initially playing footsie with Michele Bachmann, then flirting with Rick Perry before moving on to Herman Cain — they have been consistent in their lack of amor for Romney.

I never really got why Romney was dubbed the front runner in the race. Maybe he bought the title from the media at a silent auction. He’s never boasted the double digit lead and sense of inevitability that Hillary Clinton possessed prior to Obama’s Iowa upset in 2008. There was also a lot of passion among Clinton supporters for their establishment candidate. They didn’t just want to win. They believed in her. Does anyone really believe in Romney?

Romney can probably blame Obama for his current predicament. Christie is currently singing a similar tune to those Clinton supporters who warned that Obama would never win in the general election, especially against likely nominee John McCain. This advice was ignored and Obama eventually triumphed. So conservatives now might think there’s no need to settle. Their dream candidate, once they get around to settling on him or her, could actually win.

That’s insane, of course, because as everyone but the staunchest right-winger realizes is that Obama had appeal to the mainstream, independent voters who ultimately decide elections. They are the ones who candidates spend the general election trying to convince. They voted for Reagan. They voted for Clinton. They voted for Bush. And they voted for Obama. Meanwhile, primary voters are usually registered members of their respective parties who would not cross party lines even if the oppossing candidate were Jesus Christ. That’s your base, though, and you’ve got to win them over first before you can make it to the general election.

Romney’s hope all along has been that the GOP base’s hatred of Obama is so great that they will overlook their antipathy for him and put him forward because he’s the most electable candidate. The flaw in this thinking is that the candidate with the limp base has never sealed the deal. That was McCain’s problem. It was also John Kerry’s, which might also be a case study for GOP voters: Democrats turned from Howard Dean toward the more establishment and arguably more electable Kerry, and it didn’t get them anywhere.

Obama can also rely on a fairly solid base. The GOP primary has been one long horror movie in 3-D that will prove more effective in getting Obama supporters to the polls than his most soaring speech. Is there some disappointment among the liberal base regarding Obama? Yes, but disappointment is dfferent from dislike. The former is usually reserved for your son who keeps bringing home women who pop their gum when they speak. You’ll still support him in the end. Dislike is what McCain faced in 2008 and Romney might face in 2012.

Looking back at the Democrat’s 2008 primary race, you could argue that a protracted, bruising path to the nomination is not necessarily fatal. However, I think that fit the Obama narrative. Romney can never lay claim to being the underdog. Clinton vs. Obama was historic. Romney vs. Anyone But Romney is hardly that, but I am glad I have my free pair of 3-D glasses.

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Posted by on December 8, 2011 in Political Theatre

 

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Sebelius vs. Science…

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday and stopped plans for the Plan B morning after pill to be sold over the counter. It is still available without a prescription but only to women (and I suppose men) over 17 who show proof of age, which at 17 would mean sulleness and a propensity for texting. Explaining her decision, Sebelius says she was “worried about confusing 11 year olds.”

Forget the 11 year olds; I’m 37 and her actions confuse me.

“I don’t think 11-year-olds go into Rite Aid and buy anything,” much less a single pill that costs about $50, (said American Academy of Pediatrics) member Dr. Cora Breuner, a professor of pediatric and adolescent medicine at the University of Washington.

Plan B is emergency contraception but not an abortion pill; it won’t affect an existing pregnancy.  The FDA believed no age limit was necessary, but is there an actual risk to minors who take the pill? Sebelius isn’t talking but Greg Pfundstein at the National Review explains his support for the decision.

The general outline of the controversy is familiar enough. Plan B and similar drugs are controversial because in addition to their contraceptive effects they are known to have abortifacient effects by preventing fertilized embryos from implanting in the uterine wall. Advocates for wider availability of the drug decry those who stand in the way of a simple means of decreasing the number of abortions and out-of-wedlock births, all for the sake of very early fetal life. Imagine the “scramble — often in late-night or weekend panics after having sex without protection.” Opponents of trivializing sex, on the other hand, think that we should be concerned about how we treat all, even inchoate, human life, and, moreover, wonder why on earth we would want to decrease the caution in that late-night scenario. Do we really want to make it easier to have irresponsible sex and then run along to the nearest 24-hour retailer to pop a pill?

The sentiment here would not confuse an 11 year old. This is the standard, generally offensive judgment of women who are sexually active. Plan B wouldn’t make it “easier to have irresponsible sex.” Irresponsible sex is already easy. It’s an absolute. You can’t improve its simplicity. However, birth control — even when responsibly used — does fail. When that occurs, it’s responsible to take action.

This decision forces a minor to go to her parents if she wants the pill, which removes the choice over its usage and potentially her own pregnancy from her. Forcing women over 17 — presumably even those twice that age — to show proof of age and purchase behind the counter also restricts their privacy and needlessly so without a compelling medical reason.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the head of the FDA, disagreed with Not-a-Doctor Pfundstein, saying in The New York Times that the “studies and experts all agreed that young women would benefit from having easy access to the pill and did not need the intervention of a health care provider.”

The agency’s scientists, she wrote, “determined that the product was safe and effective in adolescent females, that adolescent females understood the product was not for routine use, and that the product would not protect them against sexually transmitted disease.”   

A mandate to purchase health insurance is a constitutional crisis, but the Obama Administration placing an age restriction on the purchase of a health-related item that’s proven safe is met with applause from the same people who thought the administration overreached with health care. You’d think they were the guy from “Memento.”

I suppose it’s important to ensure that women don’t have irresponsible sex but if they do, they become irresponsible mothers and eventually raise irresponsible kids who can walk into an Arizona gun show and buy semiautomatic pistols without a background check.

Arizona is the state where a punk with a gun almost assassinated a congresswoman. It’s also where you can carry a concealed weapon into a bar or a school. There have ben no recommendations for sensible changes to our gun laws since then. The Second Amendment is inviolable in this country, but a woman’s autonomy apparently is not.

 

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Rick Perry, Man of Faith..

Presidential candidate Rick Perry released the following commercial:

Only #RickPerry is bold enough to release a commercial affirming his lack of shame in belonging to the same religion as 83% of U.S. citizens, as well as insulting homosexuals, who amount to a whopping 1.5% Who will stand behind Perry as he faces such overwhelming odds?

There is apparently nothing nobler than serving in the U.S. military… unless you’re gay. What sort of fiends are we dealing with who wish to put their lives at risk for the safety of others, many of whom often vote to deny them basic rights? They must have some insidious master plan — like when the Legion of Doom pretended to be the Legion of Good.

Perry insists that Obama has launched a “war on religion.” It’s unclear what the president has done to attack Christianity (what conservatives usually mean when they say “religion,” just as they mean “heterosexuals” when they say “Americans”). The best I can come up with are any efforts for inclusion Obama’s administration has made for groups or belief systems that conservative Christians don’t like.

When Perry talks about kids not being able to openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school, he seems to have confused the United States with Sombertown and Obama with the Burgermeister Meisterburger from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

Christians have complained about the apparent secularization of Christmas (while taking their kids to see Santa at the mall) for years. The expression “war on Christmas” dates back to 2005 when Bush was in office, so yet another attack on the U.S. that occurred on his watch and for which conservatives blame liberals.

Children can pray in school. Teachers don’t smack a kid in the head if they spot them saying grace before a meal — and you might want to pray before eating a school lunch these days. What can’t occur is school-approved prayer. There are several logical reasons for this, as David E. Ross details:

  • Non-sectarian prayers are impossible. A prayer is an expression of hope, praise, or thanksgiving directed to God. If religion is removed from prayer in an attempt to make it inoffensive to all religions, it become meaningless and offensive to those who are truly religious. A “sanitized” expression is no longer real prayer.
  • Public schools are funded by taxes collected from persons of all religious beliefs. It is wrong to tax a person of one religion in support of the practices of another religion or to tax an atheist to support religion in general. It is even more wrong to tax parents to provide facilities and supervision where their children will participate in a religious activity that may differ from their own family’s practices. In any case, these taxes are collected to operate systems of public education, not public religion.
  • A teacher’s direction, “Let us pray!” is insufficient. (For a government employee — a public school teacher — to give such an order is offensive.) True prayer (even for adults) requires a state of mind that is not obtained immediately upon command. Often, this state of mind requires several minutes of contemplation, ritual, or even hymn singing. Different religions reach this state differently. This is an inappropriate activity for a group of individuals with differing religious beliefs and practices.
  • “Optional” prayer among children is not really possible. Peer pressure among children is very strong. They have trouble resisting pressures to engage in disapproved activities such as drinking alcohol and premarital sex. When officially approved and endorsed by government, pressure from peers to conform in prayer would be impossible to resist. In this manner, children will thus be led into an activity that may be contrary to their parents’ religious beliefs.

You can debate the Constitutionality and suitability of school-approved prayer — arguably not the best debate to have as the U.S. education ranking continues to drop, but you can’t claim this is anything new. It goes back decades.

Conservatives groups do point to Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill, which they claim was “an attempt to prevent religious practice in schools.”

According to the bill, which the Democratic-controlled House passed despite unanimous Republican opposition, funds are prohibited from being used for the “modernization, renovation, or repair” of facilities that allow “sectarian instruction, religious worship or a school or department of divinity.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out that the restriction has “been the law since 1972,” when another famous Republican president was in office. Perhaps Watergate was part of a then-11-year-old Obama’s far-reaching plan to curtail religious expression in the nation.

You know, all this talk about gays and prayer doesn’t come close to addressing any of the real issues the country faces (though, rampant homophobia and religious fanaticism are serious concerns). I would venture to hope that Perry realizes this, as well, and with his campaign faltering and having no real solutions to offer, he does what any desperate, shameless man would do:

You gather a group of middle-age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character.

If Americans believe in values and character, they should also know that you can’t build either by denigrating other Americans, other nations, other faiths, other orientations. What leader is remembered today for having invented enemies and threats of their own creation rather than going after the ones they help enable?

Rick Perry probably knows this, but as Andrew Shepherd would say, the problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it, it’s that can’t sell it.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Political Theatre

 

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Recurring Feature (at least until Dec. 26): It’s a Wonderful Lives…

Recurring Feature (at least until Dec. 26): It’s a Wonderful Lives…

When “It Happened One Christmas,” a gender-bending take on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” debuted on ABC in 1977, the 1947 Frank Capra original with was rarely seen on TV. This soon changed in the 1980s when it became almost impossible to turn on your set in December and not stumble upon some portion of the film. As a result, I think it’s likely that those under 30 have never seen the remake.

That’s a shame because if you’re inclined to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” multiple times, there’s no harm in seeing this version at least once. It stars Marlo Thomas (“That Girl”) as Mary Bailey Hatch and Wayne Rogers (“M*A*S*H”) as George Hatch. Although she has the same name as Donna Reed’s character from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she’s basically playing the Jimmy Stewart character with Rogers serving as dutiful husband George.

Cloris Leachman plays Clara, Mary’s guardian angel, and Orson Welles (yes, Orson Welles) is the evil Mr. Potter. Welles is particularly fun to watch as one of the great screen villains.

The update remains set in the 1940s — requiring a bit of suspension of belief regarding Mary’s choices in life but whatever, this is a movie with an angel. The clip I’ve included is the part everyone knows — arguably even the few who’ve never seen “It’s a Wonderful Life”: Mary is delighted to discover that she’s returned to the reality she knows instead of the Wal-Mart at every stoplight nightmare she’d just witnessed. Reinforcing the Christ allusion is the fact that she has no reason to believe there’s a happy ending waiting for her. She’s even pleased when the police greet her with a warrant for her arrest. So what if she spends Christmas in the slammer, her mission has been accomplished… I guess. I mean, if she winds up in jail and her business fails, there’s nothing to stop Mr. Potter from moving on with his plans to turn Bedford Falls into a tacky Las Vegas or, simply, Las Vegas.

Fortunately, Mary’s friends and family bail her out — she’s too nice to fail. Wendell Jamieson pointed out in The New York Times that George (and his female doppelganger) would still have been liable for the colossal incompetence that led to the funds going missing in the first place. Shows you what Jamieson knew: He wrote this piece in 2008 around the time of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (i.e. “bank bailouts”). If you’ve read Andrew Sorkin’s “Too Big To Fail,” you’d know that there were apparently countless senile Uncle Billys handing avaricious Mr. Potters newspapers filled with money (or more specifically mortgages that were worth about as much as a newspaper). These guys are still in business somehow, which makes the ending of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “It Happened One Christmas” sadly realistic.

“It Happened One Christmas” is not available on DVD and despite The Hallmark Channel finding time for “Lucky Christmas” on its holiday roster, there are no upcoming airings scheduled this year. You can see it at the Paley Center for Media in New York, which used to be the Museum of Television and Radio, where I practically lived during the late 1990s. It was renamed in 2007 to reflect its inclusion of Internet, mobile video, and podcasting and to also make me feel like a fossil.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Pop Life, Social Commentary

 

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Occupy Gotham…

Occupy Gotham…

Frank Miller, author of “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Sin City,” last month expressed his views about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. They were no more cogent than what your conservative uncle might have said after his fifth glass of wine at Thanksgiving dinner. Miller, however, is (relatively) famous, so the media ran with it.

‘” ‘Occupy’’ is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.”

I haven’t read about any stealing and raping occurring at Occupy protests or even raping and pillaging at an “Occupy Treasure Island” demonstration. I also think few people under 40 even remember Woodstock — including the second one. It’s sort of a knee-jerk reaction conservatives over 50 have to anything that reminds them of the summer of love. It’s as if the odor of hippies is imprinted in their senses and results in the occasional patchouli-tinged flashback.

Miller labeled the protestors “iPhone, iPad-wielding spoiled brats” and suggested they “stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.” The Wall Street Journal stated that the “vast majority of demonstrators are actually employed, and the proportion of protesters unemployed (15%) is within single digits of the national unemployment rate (9.1%).” Most of the demonstrators are under 30 but 28 percent are over 40.

I suppose it’s the media coverage of the encampments that lead people to think the protestors are unemployed vagabonds. That’s the only major difference I see between Occupy and the Tea Party, and the latter was never described this way.

Of course, if there were that many desperate, unemployed people, it would be a serious issue beyond the economic inconvenience of rising police overtime (at least some of the 99 percent are making money out of this) or the aesthetic unpleasantness of large groups camping out in public places. By the way, the point of a protest is to be inconvenient and unpleasant. If it’s easily ignored, you’ll pay as much attention to it as the flashing light on your car dashboard that indicates something you should deal with but not right now.

Don't you miss these peaceful, constructive rallies by non-hippies that didn't cost the country a dime because we weren't afraid of them?

I had mostly ignored Miller’s comments until Alan Moore, author of “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta,” responded to them this weekend:

“Frank Miller is someone whose work I’ve barely looked at for the past twenty years… I thought the ‘Sin City’ stuff was unreconstructed misogyny, ‘300’ appeared to be wildly ahistoric, homophobic and just completely misguided. I think that there has probably been a rather unpleasant sensibility apparent in Frank Miller’s work for quite a long time.”

Moore’s statement interested me. It’s easy to assume that the combination of age and wealth caused Miller to go off his rocker. He wouldn’t be the first. However, it is interesting to go back and examine the work he published in the 1980s, specifically “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: Year One.”

The future that Miller depicts in 1986’s “Dark Knight” satirizes both the media and the government’s fecklessness with almost chilling prescience. The TV anchors are vapid and muzzled by the FCC. Superman is a tool of the federal government, and the local police are useless, primarily because Commissioner Gordon has retired and his (female) replacement just doesn’t understand that you need a masked vigilante on the streets to maintain law and order. The Feminine mystique has even infected the penal system — Arkham Asylum is now the Arkham “Home.” Two Face is about to be released —  ostensibly but not really cured. Bruce Wayne, long since retired as Batman and now reduced to an emasculated, drunken shell of himself, enables the rehabilitation, which of course fails (you can’t save these people) and requires the return of Batman and the more masculine approach to justice.

The concept of the masked hero is interesting. Zorro, Batman… these are all men of privilege who hide their identities so they can continue to exist in that world. They have something to lose. Some have made the connection to the Klan, who professed to “maintain” the “rightful” order of things while dressed to terrify their victims and remain anonymous.

Miller’s Batman is obsessed with the nameless thug who killed his parents. He has dedicated his life to fighting a symptom (crime) rather than seeking a cure (poverty). There was a period prior to the release of “Dark Knight” when Bruce Wayne opened the “Wayne Foundation,” a charitable organization that sought to clean up the streets during the day rather than just at night. A connection had been made between extreme poverty, the resulting desperation, and crime. That is not evident in “Dark Knight.” The notable victims of rising crime rates are the affluent like Bruce Wayne’s parents. Their territory — the area they are free to wander unmolested — has been infringed, and that’s enough to drive an otherwise sane rich white man to his cape and cowl.

Batman’s model inspires some mindless thugs to call themselves the “Sons of Batman” and purge the streets through violent means. It’s their own Occupy Gotham. The poor and disenfranchised are now fighting each other rather than bothering people who are important because they own things. Moore references this in his final zinger to Miller:

“I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favor of it. We would definitely have to agree to differ on that one.”

“Batman: Year One,” released in 1987, is a low-key, noirish counterpoint to the more operatic “Dark Knight.” However, many of the themes remain: The cops are either corrupt or useless, and it takes a rich kid to straighten things up. One scene I thought was cool when I was 13 I find repugnant today: Batman breaks into the hotel room of a potential witness against a corrupt cop and convinces him to testify through methods that would please Dick Cheney. This is not really heroic. It just uses a mob technique for the “good” of society, but what was it Nietzsche said about fighting monsters? I recall pre-Miller Batman stories when our hero would have protected the witness from harm rather than just threatening to harm him more than the bad guys would. These were truly the Reagan years with more emphasis on “Dark” and less on “Knight.”

It’s dangerous to believe that “laws” and “rights” are just things criminals use to hide from justice, and that a masked man (or worse, his army of unstable loons) violating them is the only answer. I find it fascinating that the guy who wrote these stories is so irked by a generally peaceful demonstration against society’s excesses. Perhaps he’s afraid of what could happen if the protestors suddenly begin taking orders from someone who views the world as he does.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Political Theatre, Pop Life

 

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“Loopin’ the Loop”…

“Loopin’ the Loop”…

My post yesterday about the “Chicago” revival’s 15th anniversary inspired me to put on the 1975 original cast recording. I would humbly argue that “Chicago” is Kander and Ebb’s finest achievement: Every song is a knockout. I would less humbly argue that the 1975 original cast recording is the best way to enjoy the musical when at home.

The 1996 revival recording is very good, but whenever I conduct my own Pepsi Challenge, I consistently prefer the 1975 original. This could easily boil down to two words: Gwen Verdon. You just can’t match her. However, Jerry Orbach (“Law & Order”) is brilliant as slick lawyer Billy Flynn — years before he would become everyman cop Lennie Briscoe, and Barney Martin (“Seinfeld”) truly defines “Mr. Cellophane.” I’ve never heard a better version than his. The only exceptions are — perhaps telling for me — Bebe Neuwirth’s versions of “I Can’t Do It Alone” and “When Velma Takes the Stand.” No one can touch Neuwirth’s comedic timing. I also think the orchestra is overall tighter in the original.

Personal tastes aside, it’s ultimately academic because you should really own both recordings. Unfortunately, due to space limitations for vinyl, the 1975 recording lacks “I Know a Girl,” “Entr’acte,” and “Hot Honey Rag.” “Me and My Baby” is also truncated. The 1996 album has them all in full.

If you don’t already own the 1996 recording, I’d recommend picking up the two-disc 10th anniversary edition. You’ll get the revival plus some extras. Most are forgettable (Melanie Griffith singing “Me and My Baby” and a curiously cast Lynda Carter performing “When You’re Good to Mama”), but it’s worth the full price just to hear the Kander and Ebb demos “Ten Percent” and “Loopin’ the Loop.”

“Ten Percent” was cut from “Chicago.” David Hyde-Pierce explains why in this neat clip of him performing the song.

Loopin’ the Loop” was intended to serve as the finale, but “Nowadays” replaced it because reportedly director/choreographer Bob Fosse wanted something “more glamorous.” I’d never second-guess Mr. Fosse, but I think “Loopin’ the Loop” would have solved the problem of “Chicago” not really having a song that’s about Chicago. However, “Loopin’ the Loop” lives on — sans vocals and with a snippet of “All That Jazz” at the start — as the “Overture,” which is a minute and a half of concentrated magic that never fails to perk up my mood when I hear it.

This is a Holy Grail clip I found on YouTube of 1975 “Chicago” rehearsals prior to the removal of “Loopin’ the Loop.” It’s the sort of thing you can’t believe exists.

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2011 in Pop Life

 

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“The Twelve Pains of Christmas”…

“The Twelve Pains of Christmas”…

In 1988, Seattle radio personality Bob Rivers released his holiday novelty album “Twisted Christmas” — not to be confused with Twisted Sister’s 2006 “A Twisted Christmas.”  My favorite song from the album — though, I think it’s the only one I can remember ever hearing — is “The Twelve Pains of Christmas.” The following year, when the tune resurfaced for its annual holiday rounds, I recorded it off the air, most likely from John Garabedian’s “Open House Party,” which was my girl-less Saturday night entertainment for most of high school.

“The Twelve Pains of Christmas” sends up the holiday standard “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which I’ve never enjoyed so the mocking nature of Rivers’ song especially appealed to me. My 20-year-old mixtape containing the last 11 verses of the song long since died (I wasn’t quick enough to get the first verse — a conundrum lost on most members of the iPod generation), but I was pleased to discover that the entire album is available for download on iTunes.

There was no official video made of the song, but there are a few fan-made versions on YouTube.

This one features one guy as all the characters. I include it mostly so you can hear Rivers’ original recording.

But this one’s really nifty: The Madrigal Singers of Boston College perform the song live in period costume:

Rivers followed up “Twisted Christmas” with 1993’s “I Am Santa Claus.” Although not as darkly accurate a depiction of the holiday season as “The Twelve Pains of Christmas,” “Walkin’ ‘Round In Women’s Underwear” — a parody of “Winter Wonderland” — is an amusing ditty if you’re into the whole Weird Al/Dr. Demento thing. If not, I’ve probably wasted your time.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2011 in Pop Life

 

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