Saturday, September 29, 2007

ON THE EVE OF WHAT COULD BE THE WORST DAY IN PHILADELPHIA SPORTS HISTORY SINCE JEROME BROWN DIED: Seriously: if the Phillies lose, Mets win and Eagles lose in prime time to the Giants.... well, one day more. Tonight, la resistance prepares. Tonight, we pray. And we hope.

That is the true genius of Phillies fans, a faith -- a faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles; that we can bring our children to the ballgame and know that the Phanatic won't hurt them; that we can yell what we think, blog what we think, without getting kicked out of the park; that we can scream for the Phillies at twelve of the other thirteen National League parks without fear of retribution, and that our all-star votes will be counted -- at least most of the time.

In the end, that’s what this season is about. Do we participate in a Phillies fandom of cynicism or do we participate in a fandom of hope?

Chase Utley calls on us to hope. Ryan Howard calls on us to hope.

I’m not talking about blind optimism here -- the almost willful ignorance that thinks the bullpen problems will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the lack of a fourth starting pitcher will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of kids in the Italian Market sitting around a fire singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"; the hope of suburbanites setting out for Citizens Bank Park; the hope of a young Aaron Rowand bravely patrolling the centerfield; the hope of James Rollins' son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a big kid at first base with the same name as a character on The Office who believes that the playoffs have a place for him, too.

Hope -- Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!

In the end, that is baseball's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.
THERE'S NO FOR A LITTLE PRAYER, BECAUSE THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME CALLED MADONNA'S NAME: Future Rock Hall has collected some of the most painful ledes for stories heralding Madonna's nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Theirs and my favorite is easily: "Like a virgin, Madonna's been touched for the very first time -- by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
IN WHICH A WORLD CLASS NEONATAL SURGEON GETS BIONIC IMPLANTS SO SHE CAN SERVE A WEALTHY NEW YORK FAMILY: Catching up on some new TV that we hadn't covered that I picked up courtesy of DVR and repeats:
  • Bionic Woman--Just a complete and utter bore, which you'd think would be hard to do with "Superwoman kicks ass!" I'm not sure if it's Michelle Ryan or how her part is written that's the problem, but Jamie Sommers is completely uninteresting and uncharismatic. Miguel Ferrer and Katee Sackhoff both get to industriously chew the scenery, and it's nice to see Lucy Hale (best known for playing Robin's little sister on HIMYM) again, but I don't regret opting not to DVR original showings, opting for Gossip Girl and Private Practice instead. I'll keep picking up repeats on SciFi for an episode or two to see how the retooling apparently done post-pilot affects things, but am not optimistic. (The change in the sister was obvious, particularly in the scene where Jamie answers the phone, and we see the light and TTY device on the phone.)
  • Dirty Sexy Money--Almost as much fun as its title suggests. One part Brothers & Sisters, one part Gossip Girl with grownups, and a whole heaping load of self-aware humor in the mix. We all know Krause can play righteous indignation really well, and it's far better to watch him do this than the kinda repugnant Nate Fisher, Jr. Especially if this gets the sort of jump Brothers & Sisters did with a slight retooling about 6-7 episodes in, could be the best new show of the season.
  • Private Practice--Actually watched this Wednesday night, but didn't post. While the three stories were rather disconnected, and I didn't really understand why the Violet/Cooper plotline got started (and if Violet is this woman's treating shrink, how did she not know the information that proved so critical?), the cast overall is so likable and charismatic that I'll keep on watching, especially if we can find some reason to have Audra McDonald sing in an upcoming episode.

Still sitting on the DVR unwatched--pilots for Cane, Journeyman, and Big Shots. I've heard the last is a particular act of masochism to watch, but will probably give a shot off my residual goodwill for Malina, Vartan, and Rob Thomas.

THE MAGIC NUMBER IS TWO: The Phillies have a magic number, and it is two. In five days, the Phillies have gone from having a 4.8% chance of winning the division to a 86.3% chance. Heck, as of September 13, the Phightins had only a 12.4% chance of making the playoffs at all.

Win it for J-Roll. Win it for Chase. Win it for Ryan Howard, and to validate the masterful effort of Cole Hamels last night. And finish it today.

(Oh, you want to know why? Because the curse is dead.)

Friday, September 28, 2007

CSI: RIYADH: There are many reasons to see The Kingdom this weekend. Among them are:
  • A cast riddled with ALOTT5MA faves (Jennifer Garner, Chris Cooper, Jason Bateman, and Jeremy Piven all have major roles, with Coach Taylor and Lyla Garrity both having bit parts).
  • The direction by Peter Berg, who, despite a rocky start, is turning into one of the more interesting and diverse directors in the business.
  • That the final 20 minutes constitute the best action flick since Bourne Ultimatium, while the first act (set almost entirely in Washington) is some of the best backroom politics stuff I've seen in a good while. (Also, it has one of the best and most hyperkinetic main title sequences of the year.)
  • That it's a movie set in the Middle East and about America's role there that isn't making any simplistic political statement (No "Iraq Bad!," "Terrorism Bad!," or "Saudis Bad!" messages here). I think there are some (pretty powerful) themes in there, but unlike, say, In The Valley Of Elah, the movie exists and is highly entertaining wholly divorced from the political sentiments, which leave the audience asking more questions rather than giving answers.

This isn't an "Oscar Flick." It's way too popcorn-y and the performances, while solid, are not overwhelming (though Garner again gets to prove that she can kick ass, look pretty, and act wordlessly). That said, it's an entertaining time at the movies, which, sometimes, is all you want and need. Check it out.

WELL, WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? This thread is reserved all weekend long (until we need a new one) for the irrational, giddy, and tense supporters of the Philadelphia Phillies to commisserate.

Three games. A ridiculous number of possibilities, with about half of them breaking our hearts. But there is no other time to push your hearts all-in to the center of the table. Go Phightins!
R.O.C.K. IN THE C.L.E.V.E.: The Roll and Roll Hall of Fame today announced the finalists for its 2008 induction class of 2008:
Madonna, the Beastie Boys, Leonard Cohen, Donna Summer, Afrika Bambaataa, John Mellencamp, Chic, the Dave Clark Five (again?), and the Ventures.
The links will take you to the Keltner profiles already done of this year's nominees, and I doubt there's much need to do one on Madonna other than to demonstrate just how towering her influence is.

According to, among those artists eligible for the first time this year -- but denied -- are Metallica, Sonic Youth, The Cure, Don Henley, 10000 Maniacs, Ice-T, Janet Jackson, Michael McDonald, Wham! and the Violent Femmes. And, of course, again no Replacements. Review our bitching and moaning at last year's ballot, and then let us renew it.
THEY'RE LOST AND THEY'RE FOUND: I don't know if it'll be eligible for the Special Theatrical Event Award (though seems plausible), but Duran Duran on Broadway could give them a Tony nomination to add to their Grammy Awards and Golden Globe nomination.
BEFORE ALLY, CARRIE, AND ADDISON: In the 1920s, Americans often spoke of a "New Woman" -- independent, assertive, sexual, flamboyant. Forever captured in the image of the "flapper", the New Woman embodied the cultural ferment of the "Roaring Twenties." Yet even amid the sex, the booze, the jazz, and the short skirts, the New Women of the '20s remained locked in traditional gender conventions, as we see in the decade's popular culture.

In motion pictures, the New Woman appeared as the "movie modern," a type of heroine who showed even more independent spirit (and considerably more leg) than her cinematic predecessor, Mary Pickford. The movie moderns worked in offices and department stores, danced and drank at nightclubs, and cultivated their appearance through fashion and make-up. In many cases, these women found themselves romantically frustrated, as evident in Gloria Swanson's memorable put-down from 1920's Why Change Your Wife?: "The more I see of men, the better I like dogs." Yet they still vigorously pursued their men, determined to land a handsome, preferably wealthy catch. Perhaps no screen actress embodied the New Woman more than Clara Bow, the original "It Girl" -- so named because of her winning performance in the 1927 film It. As this clip shows, Bow's character displayed all of the flapper's physical and sexual appeal. And yet in the end, her goal was to get a rich husband and live happily ever after.

Some performers did extend the freedom of the New Woman beyond such conventional frameworks. In films like She Done Him Wrong, Mae West pushed the boundaries of sexual frankness, outraging cultural and civic leaders and helping to usher in the era of the Hays Code. Equally uninhibited -- and even further removed from the pop culture "mainstream" -- were the "blues queens" of the 1920s and 1930s. Singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ida Cox used the blues to express sorrow over lost homes and displaced families, but they also embraced their sexuality with gusto and mocked the pathetic lovers who failed to measure up (check out Ida Cox's "One Hour Mama" for a classic example of this style). Once again, though, this vigorous sensuality went too far for white middle-class tastes, and the blues queens were confined to the commercial ghetto of "race records."

The dilemma of the New Woman persisted throughout 20th-century popular culture (and we'll spend more time on the post-WWII era in a few weeks, when we discuss Susan Douglas's Where the Girls Are). Even today, pop culture frequently portrays independent women as successful, sexual, seemingly satisfied individuals who are nevertheless unhappy and unfulfilled because they lack a mate. Is this image really so inescapable? Can you offer any examples of pop-culture characters or performers who've been able to step outside the boundaries of the "New Woman" ideal?

Next week: the birth of radio and the phenomenon of Amos 'n' Andy.
I DIDN'T WANT TO BE LATE FOR MY SECOND FIRST DAY (OR: IT'S ONLY MEREDITH, PART II): I certainly don't plan on being the one blogging Gray's all season, but everybody except me seems to have a life. There were a couple of cute callbacks to the pilot and to the various "pick me" cliffhangers, and the lack of juicy medicine in a season premiere (where they have a lot of exposition to get through) is excusable, but there's a problem. Last season's finale, riveting and well-done as it was, was like a grenade in an enclosed space. It's a lot easier to pull the pin and run away than it is to clean up afterward. After all of the carnage last season, we seem to be left with a lot of unlikeable characters and only a few really likeable ones (and I'm not in the Callie camp, by the way, not that she deserves George's behavior). Plus, the central dilemma for me is, as Shonda acknowledged in the locker room scene with George and in the hallway scene with Meredith and Derek, that of our now-two title characters, it's a lot easier to sympathize with the new one.

And that's not just because of the bottomless reservoir of goodwill she built up with NATM.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"IT'S ONLY MEREDITH": Open Office thread. My thoughts to come (as is a thread on The Other Meredith, I'm sure); I was out tonight at a Jeffrey Toobin reading. FWIW, he thinks that if Clinton is elected, she'll nominate Sen. Obama to the Supreme Court. Heh -- birds, stone, etc.
EXPLORING THE FRONTIERS OF MEDICINE, ONE PROP AT A TIME: I'm going to violate my boycott of TMZ for just a minute -- unshun -- because I need to report that, based on what I know of human anatomy, Carrot Top has apparently gotten deltoid implants.* Shun.

*Blame: Defamer.
BETTER THAN MEDILLIN MEDELLIN: An interesting legal/pop cultural question for you folks. If you go to see Queens Boulevard (the musical), are you expecting any ties whatsoever to HBO, Entourage, and/or the characters depicted therein? Are you expecting "I am Queens Boulevard" to be the big final song? Can (and should) there be copyright and trademark rights for fictional products? (See Marty Schwimmer for a collection of well-known trademarks that don't actually exist.)
TERRITORIAL PISSING: Man, Wednesday is a punishing night of television. I'm through only two of the four TiVoed hours (plus there are still pilots galore from early in the week). I can only talk about Gossip Girl and ANTM here, though if nobody else posts on them and anybody wants a thread for Kid Nation or Dirty Sexy Money/the Blair Underwood Philanthropic Inventor Project, have at it.

On ANTM, it's still too early in the season to tell for sure, but it looks like two of the major arcs this season will be (1) the battle for the Sassy 'Hood Model slot (we like Lisa, who is gorgeous, but don't really see her pigeonholed that way; Spacewoman rightly points out that Bianca seems correctly jealous of Lisa's looks, poise, and foster-care upbringing); and (2) "Tyra Cures Autism" (tm Spacewoman). Of the latter, in a show that exploits illnesses leeringly, this episode was the most leeringly exploity of all. I do hope it works out for Heather, both because I sympathize with her difficulties and because the delta between rolled-out-of-bed Heather and makeup-and-lingerie Heather is astonishing. Incidentally, does Yale Girl have Aspergers too? In short-term news, the panel got the bottom three right and cured Tyra's biggest casting mistake this season in enjoyably comic fashion.

As for Gossip Girl, which I again thoroughly enjoyed (favorite thing this week -- realizing that Dan has just enough of a vestigial accent to make him believable as a Brooklyn outsider trying to crack a wealthy Manhattan social circle), may I venture two constructive criticisms? First, as many well-wishers as Kristen Bell has, and as much as her voice-overs are more cleverly-written than those on SATC and less ham-fisted as those on Heroes, they do nothing for the show except give it a title. The show hasn't made much effort to establish the blog's cultural significance, it makes no sense in real time, and as a framing device it's a rather blunt tool. Dial it back to prologue and epilogue. And as for our leads, HIMYM and FNL have shown that the Sam-and-Diane paradigm is not a rule inviolate -- you can have a good show built around relationships and romances without needing to use courtship as a plot crutch. The Dan-Serena Vanderwoodson tiff seemed forced and artificial, and I hope it doesn't take the rest of the season before they patch it up over a swelling power ballad.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

THE YEAR OF GLAD -- TOP CHEF III FINALE, PART ONE: Alternate title? Four chefs enter, one chef leaves.

Hung, Casey, Malarkey and Dale had a month off before packing their knives up into scenic Pitkin County, Colorado, where, at the foot of Independence Pass, along the Roaring Fork River, there is a tiny little mountain hamlet called Aspen:
The city has its roots in the winter of 1879, when a group of miners ignored pleas by Frederick Pitkin, governor of Colorado, to return across the Continental Divide due to an uprising of the Ute Indians.
Aspen endured many ups and downs over the years (but only one subsequent major Ute uprising, in 1887) before the Top Chef III finalists arrived this past summer, and emerged in the second half of the Twentieth Century as a celebrated alpine recreation hub and jet set destination. Some locals -- as well as dilettante sympathizers from the flatlands who, let's face it, probably don't know what they're talking about -- have since been heard to complain that the valley has degenerated into a playground for the wealthy, an extended collage of exclusive destinations and extremely private enclaves, surrounded by bedroom communities for the folks that service them. You know, like Vail, but for people with real money. Still, every once in awhile, something fairly amazing still happens up there.

Among the annual goings on is the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, which provided the background for the contestants' final battles on Top Chef III. (Later in the summer, other fun things that I like to plug to anyone who'll listen happened down valley.) To prepare, Malarkey "won awards and did research"; Dale "found his chef"; Hung worked to further advance his already more-advanced-than-you skills and techniques and (if the deadening drumbeat of up-by-the-bootstraps invocations is a reliable indication) practiced his immigrant song, and Casey got some really extreme highlights. Time well spent, on all counts, I'm sure.

The guest judge for Part One of the finale was the renowned Eric Ripert, responsible for -- among other things -- Manhattan's Le Bernardin. For some reason, he now appears to comb white stuff into his hair. Because he was up near 8000ft, his Quickfire Challenge(tm) was to prepare a tasty trout entrée in twenty minutes or less. A couple of notes: (1) Those were some big trout. Your average Rocky Mountain Brook Trout would not eat like that. (Record catch, 7lbs 8oz, 1947.) (2) If you catch a trout, and can't for the life of you remember what the Top Chefs did with theirs, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has a helpful recipe page. (3) If you're out of wireless internet range, just gut it, rub the inside with oil and butter and whatever good stuff is in your kit (sage and cumin, salt and pepper), and pan fry it on top of a strip of bacon. Two days in, that beats freeze dried chicken ala king every time. (4) Chef Ripert complained to Dale about the cayenne pepper he employed "kicking" and lingering "in the throat" after eating. This is what cayenne pepper is for. Have a beer with that.

Then, for the elimination, Battle Elk. All of this looked delicious to me, Casey's "black and blue" loin chops especially. Rare as hell? Crusted with mushrooms? Sign me up! I was also amazed that Dale's impulse control issues were, for once, seamlessly self-correcting. Similarly impressive was Brian's calculation that yes, though you might doubt him, he could braise that much shank in three short hours. Finally, Hung's growing enthusiasm for elk, culminating with a near scientific pitch in presenting his meal to the judges and Colicchio's explicit recognition at the judge's table that Hung's kung fu was indeed the best... well, that was fun to watch.

All that remains, for this post, are the compulsories. So first, here's your link to Bourdain's blog. His post on this episode is not up as of this writing, so here's some bonus Bourdain, fielding audience questions about foie gras, seal eyeballs, Peruvian hallucinogens, and his choice of last meal. And last, here's my link to Denver's own Buckhorn Exchange, where you can get your trout on, and get your elk on, and also get many, many other things.
A MESSAGE FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF THESE-KIDS-TODAY: Apropos of nothing, I got a little nostalgic today for the old-style computer mouse. You know, the one with the rubber ball in the middle? Remember how it would eventually stop rolling smoothly, and you'd have to open up the casing, drop out the ball, and scrape the gummy dust off the roller wheels with a bent paper clip or an eyeglasses screwdriver? So satisfying. These infra-red lights just don't understand me.

And speaking of old things that are obsolete, I know I'm jumping the gun, but Blair Underwood plays a philanthropic inventor on Dirty Sexy Money? Come again?
THE MOVIE STAR, AND THE REST...: On the turn-of-the-century stage, star performers drew big crowds. But in the first decade or so of the movie business, few stars shone. Audiences flocked more to the novelty and excitement of the medium, and filmmakers considered actors simply one tool among many at their disposal. By the 1910s, though, moviegoers were growing more curious about the actors and actresses on screen, performers were pushing for more prominent credits, and producers were realizing that you could successfully publicize a movie by promoting its most popular stars.

Two essays in the reader Hollywood's America examine the rise of the movie star during the late 1910s and early 1920s. Charles Musser looks at Charlie Chaplin, whose "Little Tramp" character became one of the most beloved and identifiable icons in movie history. During the 1910s, movie theaters promoted Chaplin shorts simply by placing a life-size cut-out of the Tramp on the sidewalk outside, with the legend "I am here today." The Tramp's appeal was obvious, even in a charming trifle like 1916's The Pawnshop; Chaplin expressed the everyday frustrations of the working class through physical comedy that spoke to viewers of all backgrounds. The phenomenal success of the Tramp films made Chaplin rich, famous, and hugely influential -- in short, a movie star.

Lary May's essay (drawn from his excellent book, Screening Out the Past) focuses on Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. While they played a wider variety of characters than Chaplin did, both Fairbanks and Pickford favored the same types of roles again and again: he, the dashing and athletic young adventurer; she, the pure yet independent modern woman. Here again, these stars' on-screen personas neatly reflected the culture of their times. But what really catapulted Pickford and Fairbanks' stardom to a new level was their off-screen life together. They were the first movie-star couple, the precursors to Liz & Dick, TomKat, and Brangelina -- their private lives tracked in fan magazines and gossip columns, their salaries discussed with wonder and amazement, their commercial and cultural impact felt far beyond the nickelodeon.

Today, we continue to debate the qualities of a "movie star," compiling list after list of Hollywood's biggest performers. Even more interesting is the tricky business of distinguishing an "actor" from a "movie star." Ask performers to define themselves in these terms, and you'll get some very puzzling responses indeed. So instead, I'll ask you. What exactly is a "movie star"? And is being a "movie star" somehow different from being an "actor"? If so, how? Please show all work and provide specific examples to support your wild generalizations.
PRINCETON PLAINSBORO TEACHING HOSPITAL IS A PORTAL TO HELL. DISCUSS: Figure we need a place to discuss last night's television--so, should those with single tuner DVR's opt for the miscreant from New Jersey (and Robert Sean Leonard probably won last night's MVP award for reminding me of HIMYM's "This isn't Barney, but I hear that guy's awesome" from last season, with Dr. Jan I. Tor suggesting lupus and Hizzy's reaction being an early contender for meta-joke of the year) or the show about miscreants from Washington directed by the guy famous for directing movies about miscreants from New Jersey (which I liked, but didn't love, aside from Ray Wise)?
FREEDOM FOIE FOR FIVE: That's what they're calling next week's twenty Philadelphia restaurant "please sample a foie gras dish for $5" promotion in response to recent acts of protest and harassment by animal rights activists against the local chefs who serve it.

Love it, "don't love it but wouldn't ban it," or ban it, folks? I'm on the freedom side of this one, and regret that some local restaurants have succumbed to the pressure and pulled it from their menus.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

IF IT'S REALLY FOR GENIUSES, WHERE'S MARILYN VOS SAVANT'S AWARD? The 2007 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" have been announced. Unlike last year when New Yorker author/surgeon Atul Gawande and journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc were recognized, I can't identify any of these folks.
YES, BUT WHERE WAS OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBIT? We not only have an extraordinary figure skating correspondent in our friend Gretchen; she also files travel reports on occasion:

* * * * *

I'm just back from a quick trip to Orlando, where eight college friends met up with us for a four-day marathon through all four theme parks and the Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Since this is the blog of choice not only for parents of four year olds planning Disney trips but also for overeducated urban professionals planning Disney trips, here are a few highlights from our trip.

First, the bad: namely, Disney-MGM Studios. (Or, as it will soon be renamed, Disney's Hollywood Studios.) Rock-n-Roller Coaster was closed, and let me tell you that without that ride, the whole park is sorely lacking in headliner attractions. We rode Tower of Terror a few times, but found ourselves scrounging for stuff to do. We also got rained out of the Indiana Jones stunt show (lightning). The unexpected highlight for me was the art class with a "Disney animator," which was really fun and very non-Disney. I drew a killer version of Pluto. I also really loved the Lights-Motors-Action stunt show, which was fast-paced and intense. We just missed the opening of the High School Musical 2 show, called "School's Out!"

Also, have any of you experienced the "Narnia" attraction? It's unbelievably lame. You watch the DVD extras while you stand in line, then go into a big room with a lamppost and fake snow. An actress dressed like the White Witch gives this short speech, you watch 10 minutes of movie highlights and a preview of Prince Caspian, and then you leave. It really doesn't even deserve the Disney name. Given the amazing things you could do with a Narnia-themed ride, this just seems tragic. And I like Beauty and the Beast just as much as the next bookish girl, but I'd love to see a new and spruced up stage show in the theater, especially if it featured performers who could either sing live or lip-sync more plausibly.

Luckily, thanks to the aforementioned rain, we had no waits for anything, which made even the bad attractions palatable (although there's no excuse for the Drew Carey "sounds" attraction, which is terrible). And the rain gave us some extended time in the video arcades, where my friend managed to win the entire cast of Finding Nemo out of those grab machines, much to the amazement of friends and small children everywhere.

I love the theming of this park as you walk down Sunset Boulevard, but I think the whole place is experiencing an identity crisis. There are so many missed opportunities. I hope that with the new Toy Story attraction (modeled after Buzz Lightyear) and with the name change, the park will move forward and develop content that lives up to its promise.

Now for the best: On Friday night, we went to the Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom. I wasn't sure that it would be worth the $50 price of admission (that's $10 per hour!) but it was fabulous. The big rides, as well as the good Fantasyland rides, were all open, and lines were very short (posted at ten minutes, we basically just walked on to everything.) The Haunted Mansion is decked out with a live actress in front playing a ghost and the cast members in full ghoul makeup. Cast members and characters have trick-or-treat stations scattered throughout the park. But the core message of the Halloween party is this: Villains Love Techno. The themed Halloween fireworks are set to techno versions of Disney classics (which is scary all by itself!). The Villains float thumps to the beat of some random guy playing a fake guitar. And the Villains show on the steps of the Castle is totally priceless. Imagine, if you will, Cruella DeVille vamping with Jafar, while dancers in Sydney Bristow bright red wigs, pleather corsets, and fishnets do kicks in the background. Men in muscle shirts and leather pants thrust and pump around Maleficent. I've never seen anything quite like it at Disney.

Onto Animal Kingdom! Expedition Everest is amazing. The park was quiet enough that we had lots of time to watch the animals (I love the big bats on the Jungle Trail). And I just thoroughly love the theming in this park. The entire park really screams Julie Taymor to me---everything, from the parade to the costuming to the attractions, feels like it was inspired by her direction of the Lion King for Broadway. There's also a new Finding Nemo musical, with music apparently done by the Avenue Q guys. It's air conditioned (always a plus) and uses great puppetry, black light effects, bubbles, and other traditional stagecraft devices to really create something special. I think it's a must-see at Disney.

And that leaves Epcot. Best ride: Test Track. Worst ride: Journey Into Imagination. Also awesome: Soarin' Over My Home State of California and the pavilion where you can drink exotic Coke products from around the world. (Clearly, they save money by only letting you sample virtually unpalatable drinks. If someone tells you to try Beverly, just say no.)

World Showcase was totally fun. After watching both the American movie/show and the new, Martin-Short-narrated Canadian movie, we all decided that Canada looked pretty darn good. It combines the "beauty and grandeur of Canada" with actual humor, which we really appreciated. (Disney's Americana is all so SERIOUS! At one point in the Hall of Presidents, I laughed at a line that I'm pretty sure was intended to be funny, and this ten-year-old boy sitting in front of me turned around and glared. Apparently, I wasn't being sufficiently reverent.) The Norwegian cast members were hot as usual. We loved the very cold beer in the Germany pavilion, and had a pretty good Moroccan dinner. I decided that between the focus on world peace through dining on world cuisine and the optimistic look at a future governed by the triumph of science and genetically modified crops, EPCOT is the Park of the Enlightenment. (I think Magic Kingdom is medieval and MGM is twentieth century, but I'm still working on this theory.)
NOT AN OPEN CALL FOR ANCHORMAN QUOTES: In my Heroes post, I deleted, as surplusage, a line likening the show to walking through a large, expensive, spec-built house. It looks great, it's tasteful, everything is nicely done, it has extra-large bathrooms and those cool double-drawers in the kitchen, but it just doesn't seem like anybody lives there.

That reminded me of a debate we had on [this blog's predecessor] several years ago and might be worth revisiting now: are there any words more redolent of faint praise than "tasteful" and its more vulgar cousin, "classy"? To me, when a person says tasteful, what it means is "I don't like it, but it looks expensive," or "could have been worse, given your poor taste." When a person says "classy," it means "this is among the nicest emergency rooms/dialysis centers/strip clubs I've ever patronized" (an association perhaps colored by the fact that my old friend Robyn, prompted by this theory, told me that she lived near a strip club called "Bob's Classy Lady").

edited by Adam to enforce the first rule of Fight Club.
KILL THE MINDREADER, SAVE THE SHOW: At least in my book it's not a good thing that the season premiere of last season's hot new serialized supernatural drama, Heroes, made exactly three distinct impressions on me: (1) throughout, I thought, "they've really upped the production budget this season -- look how lavishly this is filmed"; (2) hey, look, there's Sark, and for an Oregon boy he sure is typecast as a Brit; and (3) holy crap, when are they going to do a commercial so I can see a man about a horse? It wasn't bad, exactly, but to thrive, the show needs either to set up an intriguing mystery or provide a completely unexpected surprise in the last five minutes (or, occasionally, both), and in this case it did neither.

And Detective Agent Weiss, please stop sucking all of the life of this show. Do we really need a two-year tutorial in how not to use Greg Grunberg?
LET'S GO MAKE FUN OF SOMEONE NERDIER THAN OURSELVES: Presumably that's the motivation of both teams in this Saturday's Second Annual Klingons v. Furries Bowling Tournament in Atlanta.

Via Boingboing.
I LIKE MINE STRAWBERRY, AND ON TOAST: Time for yet another YouTube Battle! How do you like your Jem? Electronica chanteuse and staple of television soundtracks or truly outrageous, truly, truly, truly outrageous?

Monday, September 24, 2007

PRINCE WANTS EVERYONE TO KNOW HE IS NOT EXCITED ABOUT THE SHOW: Just days before the 2007-08 premiere, Maya Rudolph has decided to not return for her eight season of SNL. Between her masterful impressions and great musical/comedic talent, Rudolph's one of the best performers they've had in a long time, and she will be missed -- especially in a cast that now features just Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler for all the female parts. Here's her Oprah's Favorite Things.

The rest of last year's cast is back for this season, including Darrell Hammond for a record-breaking 12th season.

updated Tuesday 5:38pm: She changed her mind. Did they offer her UGG BOOTS!?
I THINK WE NEED A GOOD SPYWARE SCANNER: I enjoyed Chuck quite a bit, if just for throwaway moments like "Captain Awesome" and Adam Baldwin basically getting to play the Hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne, once again. As Alan has observed, while Gossip Girl got all of The O.C.'s soapiness, Chuck has gotten all the humor (and Chuck is basically Seth Cohen). It's also reminiscent of Alias if Will Tippin were the lead rather than Sydney, and with an amped up sense of humor. It's interesting, though, that J.J. Abrams, whose sole directorial credits before the Alias pilot were a couple of episodes of Felicity directed circles around McG as shown in the pilot. (Seriously, I'm hard pressed to think of a more visually stylish pilot than Alias had, while this featured a deliberately cartoonish explosion as a major effect.) Not perfect, by any means, but certainly worth a spot on the dual tuner DVR.
CIRQUE DU SO-LAID: Waited for it, waited for it ... Chester A. Taylor Arthur, tramp stamps, and a whole lot of references that were a bit mature for the Family Hour (not that Friends seemed to care) ... and we're a little bit closer, kids, to meeting Your Mother. Great work by Jason Segel in some of the reaction shots; fun episode.

e.t.a.: Check out the three-minute recap of the first two seasons.
LIKE WRITING HISTORY WITH LIGHTNING: I don't often spend a whole class meeting on a single pop-culture product, but then few artifacts in American cultural history are as significant and controversial as D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. Based on Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel, The Clansman, the film sets a fairly conventional tale of star-crossed lovers against the historical backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction. While the romantic episodes involving the Stonemans (Northern) and Camerons (Southern) aren't especially compelling, the film's real impact comes in its portrayal of life in the Reconstructed South. Dixon had explicitly intended his novel to rewrite Reconstruction history by denigrating African Americans and Northern radicals and celebrating the supposed savior of the white South, the Ku Klux Klan. Griffith made Dixon's mythical history even more powerful by employing all the tools of the new film medium -- dramatic close-ups, epic battle scenes, multiple camera angles, parallel action and editing -- on an unprecedented three-hour scale. On Griffth's screen, blacks and mulattoes covet white women, insult Southern men, and rule through ignorance and corruption, while hooded Klansmen save innocent maidens, terrorize Northern sympathizers, and ulitmately restore white rule.

Most critics and audiences applauded Birth of a Nation for its extraordinary cinematic and narrative power. The filmmakers even promoted endorsements from President (and former history professor) Woodrow Wilson -- who reportedly described the film as "like writing history with lightning" -- and Chief Justice Edward D. White, himself a former member of the Klan. Not surprisingly, though, African American leaders vigorously protested the film, calling for its censorship or withdrawal. After discussions with the NAACP, Griffith did consent to some minor changes to the movie, and he offered his next epic film, Intolerance, as evidence of his opposition to bigotry and prejudice. But the damage had already been done: Birth of a Nation cemented the Dixonian version of Reconstruction, reinforced racial tensions in 1910s America, and helped inspire the 1920s revival of the Klan.

So how should we deal with Griffith's film today? We could conduct academic symposia about its historical and cultural significance; we could debate its place among the all-time "great films"; we could reduce it to convenient shorthand for pop-culture racism; we could even subvert it through creative reinterpretation. Ultimately, though, we're still left with a troubling dilemma. Is it really possible to acclaim Birth of a Nation for its cinematic influence and cultural impact while simultaneously condemning its virulent racism and historical distortions? Can you think of any other pop-culture moments that inspire this same combination of artistic admiration and moral revulsion?
IF YOU WEREN’T MY BEST FRIEND I’D POP YOUR HEAD RIGHT OFF YOUR NECK: Like Alan Sepinwall, I usually agree with Larry David (though, like Alan, I part company with him when he steals flowers from the roadside memorial). Last night’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is a good example – Larry (a) took a stand on taking excessive time at store counters while others are waiting in line; (b) advocated for an airline-ticketing-type line at retail stores (a move already adopted, with positive results, by Whole Foods in Manhattan and Bristol Farms in San Francisco); and asserted an objection to paying an employee for his bathroom time (lawyers, the six-minute relief of your bladder is not worth $50 to anybody but you).

The first one, in particular, bugs me. I’ve thought about lines a lot in my life – some of my earliest memories are of standing in line with my parents in Brezhnev-era Moscow – and I think the cardinal rule is this: One should never approach the register without a plan. I have never understood how a person could stand in a long line at Starbucks or Panda Express (note, if you will, the “Express” in the title there) or the BART turnstile and not have used the time spent waiting to figure out what he or she wants and how to get it. And it’s no excuse that the line wasn’t all that long – if a line is too short to give you enough time to read the menu, then it’s short enough that you won’t lose much time by standing aside while you figure out what to get. Sure, there are times when a person legitimately needs to ask “what’s bubble tea?” or to hatch a plan B when the Orange Chicken is four minutes from coming out of the kitchen or to deal with a de-magnetized train ticket, but lack of preparation is inexcusable.

By the way, Super Dave Osborne is awesome.
BUT IS IT SOFT AS A DOWNY CHICK?: All sorts of stuff to talk about in this article, only some of which relates to the 9-feet-wide Jolie-Pitt family bed. What I found most interesting was Assassination of Jesse James . . . director Andrew Dominik's comment that "you never really feel like you know [Brad Pitt] on-screen." I totally agree with this observation, and have always found it to be Pitt's biggest flaw as an actor. He doesn't command any empathy and is always one step further removed from the audience than everyone else in any of his films. Granted, I haven't seen every single movie in the Pitt oeuvre -- maybe there's some gripping emotional frankness in Babel or Fight Club of which I am unaware -- but from what I've seen, he's basically got two modes: Flip in-on-the-Joke Brad (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Ocean's 11 through 13) and Stony Emotionally Unavailable Brad (A River Runs Through It, Spy Game, Legends of the Fall). Am I missing some inner depth here, or is this all he's got?

(thanks to ThingThrower MBR for the tip)

Publisher Denies 'Brady' Romance Rumors - AOL News

MOM ALWAYS SAYS...: Don't play ball in the house or believe everything you read on the Internets. Apparently Marcia did not have a lesbian fling with Jan--it was with Alice! (I keed, I keed.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I WAS WAITING FOR A GOLD BIKINI JOKE: As (I believe) EW noted, tonight's Family Guy: Star Wars freed Family Guy from what it does poorly (the creation of plot or character) to do what it does best (random 70s-80s pop culture jokes). Points are warranted because, while the entire episode is kind of structured around a "remember that time when..." setup, there's minimal (if any) reliance on that joke structure in the show, and the show itself is a fairly faithful retelling of Episode IV. But the biggest shock was that the Family Guy producers (who open the show with a Bush/Cheney=Galactic Empire joke) somehow managed to get Rush Limbaugh to voice himself for a brief joke. But, yes, as the (overly long) meta joke at the end pointed out, Robot Chicken did it earlier and better.
WATERBURY, MOBILE, LUVERNE, SACRAMENTO: On a scale of 1 to OMFG-I-would-not-miss-it-for-the-world, your level of interest in Ken Burns' The War on PBS over the next two weeks, as reviewed by Alan Sepinwall?

I just can't believe PBS is showing it up against the network premieres, as opposed to two weeks ago or against the December reruns.

e.t.a.: I can't really post this without linking to my favorite Ken Burns parody.
I WONDER WHAT HIS LAST WORDS WERE: Marcel Marceau has died.
ALOTT5MA THEOLOGY DEPARTMENT: So, there's this portion of the Yom Kippur service which occurs late in the afternoon, called the Avodah, in which it is described for us the way that the Kohen Gadol (the high priest) would lead Yom Kippur services in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem. You can read about it here or here, and learn all about the massive sartorial preparation by the Kohen Gadol, the sacrifice of animals, the selection of a scape-goat, etc. (After the destruction of the Temple, we can only read the story; we cannot reenact it.)

The thing that always strikes me when reading it is that at one point in the ceremony, the Kohen Gadol speaks the actual name of the Lord -- it is the only day of the year in which YHWH, and not Adonai, is pronounced. And the Hebrews are so humbled by hearing the name of the Lord that they prostrate themselves on the ground in awe, so overcome they are.

I was trying to think of anything in contemporary society that produced such universal awe and trembling, and I don't know that we come close. Maybe it's that we no longer feel as dependent on G'd's protection for our well-being; maybe it's that our ability to create spectacle through technology has overwhelming our capacity to be truly moved. (In this regard, this post directly links with Professor Jeff's below.) I suppose the sight of a newborn baby comes close -- especially if it's one's own. But in terms of other phenomena, all I could think of was a solar eclipse or comet, and I don't think either of those comes close to the sensation that's described in the Avodah service.
SOX CLINCH IN DRAMATIC FASHION: With two home runs in the ninth inning, including a blast by the slender Julio Lugo, the Red Sox won an exciting game last night and thereby clinched a spot in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. With seven games left to play, the Red Sox have the best record in MLB and a 2½-game lead over the Yankees.