Saturday, March 29, 2008

WINNER, WINNER, CHICKEN DINNER: 21 isn't a perfect film by any means, but that doesn't mean it's not a lot of good fun. The basic story's been well publicized--team of MIT math whizzes, with the help of a professor, tries to take Vegas for all it's worth with an elaborate card counting plan. Needless to say, infighting and fights with casino staff ensue. Kevin Spacey is pretty damn great as the professor who brings the team together, finally finding a role that allows him to pitch his performance just right rather than over the top (though he crosses that line in the film's last act), and for the first time in her relatively short career, Kate Bosworth is memorable rather than just being a blank slate. Sure, I called several of the plot twists well in advance (though a few still caught me by surprise), but it's still a good time.

Yes, there's been some controversy about lack of faithfulness to the real events that inspired the film, but the story changes from the book are largely for the better--in the book, there's no clear villain who gets a comeuppance at the end. Here, there is. One thing that bugged, though--one of the "big scores" is at the Riviera--based on my limited experience there, young, high rolling dot com billionaire types (the cover used by the team) would be entirely out of place there, with its aisle upon aisle of people mechanically pulling the slots.

Friday, March 28, 2008

STILL IN THE RUNNING: Two minor notes on the current cycle of America's. Next. Top. Model:
  1. I cannot even begin to communicate the level of joy I feel each time the competitors are forced to read the Tyra Mail aloud off the slow-moving LED display screens. Why? Because it makes each of them sound like Cycle 8 winner Jaslene Gonzalez narrating her My Life As A Covergirl spots, and I find that inexplicably hilarious.
  2. When did they get rid of the last-minute challenges in the judging room?
All comments on Cycle 10 are welcome. It's quite a disagreeable bunch we've got.
ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM: In his (out and out rave) review of the new production of Gypsy starring Patti LuPone, NYT drama critic Ben Brantley observes that Laura Benanti (as the title character), "obliges with examples of the ecdysiast’s art in the second act." My first though was that the word choice might be spurred by NYT standards, but in the next paragraph, the word "stripteases" is used, so apparently the word choice was Brantley's own. Perhaps I'm oversensitive on this point as I've spent the better part of this week dealing with an individual who likes to use unnecessarily large words in an effort to "facilitate appropriate communication and knowledge," but isn't Brantley just showing off and kind of making an ass out of himself?
THREE VARIATIONS ON ANN POWERS: The LA Times pop music critic penned a provocative piece on Chikezie's ouster, American Idol and race, in which she bemoans the fact that "Aside from Ruben Studdard, the Velvet Exception who proves the rule, black male singers have a tough time on 'Idol,' hanging out on its bottom tiers," and is troubled by what she describes as "white America's seeming reluctance to universally embrace a strong black male voice, unless it belongs to a rapper selling blaxploitation fantasies to teens."

To which three of us have responses, as part of our ongoing ALOTT5MA Symposium About The Sensitive Subject of Race:

Me: Look, this wasn't Nikki over Tamyra bad, or certainly John Stevens and Jasmine Trias over Jennifer Hudson (and with Fantasia and LaToya joining her in the bottom three) level of bad, but there's no question that Chikezie is more talented than, and performed better on the show than some of the people who are continuing in the competition. And I think it's also undeniable, as Powers writes, that there's a certain profile of singer -- Brandon Rogers, Anwar Robinson, Gedeon McKinney and Rickey Smith (and I'd add Nikko Smith) -- that does not progress in the competition as far as his talent would suggest he should.

The question is why, and I do think race is a factor. If nothing else, I think African-American performers have been more vulnerable to the random "one bad week" ouster than others, and this especially seems to happen earlier in the competition. Do I think voters are racist? I'm not as prepared to say that this season as I have in the past, but I do wonder if stereotypical assumptions about race mean that singers like Chikezie are seen as more "naturally" talented and not as compelling to root for as folks like Jason Castro and Brooke White, who make the effort show more clearly. Or a Taylor Hicks, who carefully and deliberately calibrated his stagecraft and shtick every week to convince people of how hard he was working.

Chikezie wasn't going to win this competition, but he still went earlier than he should have. Part of the impetus behind my whole "tiers" theory is to ameliorate the pain from an ouster like this, but it was still premature. Thank goodness it's only Idol, and not something that matters.

Kim: My dad always likes to say that when you hear hoofbeats, look for horses, not zebras. And yet here’s Ann Powers, spotting one zebra after another. The last black male singer on AI gets booted the week he sings a godawfully boring Luther Vandross song, right after a year in which there was not a single “traditional soul man” represented in the top 20 best-selling albums of the year (never you mind that the #2 album of 2007 came from Akon, a real live black man, because he’s not a traditional soul singer). That can’t be coincidence, right? Right?

Of course it’s not a coincidence. Powers doesn’t think so either, except that instead of concluding that hey, maybe traditional R&B isn’t popular these days, kind of like heavy metal power ballads are going through a bit of a low period at the moment, she makes a Bob Beamonesque leap and concludes that Americans don’t like strong black male voices right now because so many black men are in jail and/or unemployed. (Or maybe I missed the point: is it that all the strong black men who would otherwise be recording great R&B songs are currently incarcerated or standing in unemployment lines?)

Horses, Ann. Look for the horses.

Matt: My total viewing of American Idol is pretty minimal, though I do often wind up listening to the 30 second snippets of performances on iTunes. Having watched the snippets of the performances on iTunes from this week, Chikezie was certainly among the weakest along with Ramiele (and didn't do himself any favors with his song choice). Brooke probably would have been the third member of the bottom three for me because she just completely failed to emotionally connect with the song. It's hard for me to credit "racism" for this particular elimination based on that. Also undermining the argument is that an R&B singer actually has won this competition before over a white guy who played the "non-threatening boy" card as hard as possible.

It strikes me that we need to be careful not to adopt either end of the argument here unquestionably. Are there people who are voting with race as a factor--either consciously or unconsciously? Absolutely. Is "racism" the primary reason why a large number of African-American contestants have been kicked out early? I don't think so. Someone else involved in a major national voting competition that a number of us are following seemed to me to get it pretty well right a couple of weeks ago -- the debate here "reflect[s] the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through -- a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together." Let's not reflexively blame racism, and let's not deny that it may play some role here -- let's talk about it with an open mind.

Paul Simon - Brooklyn Academy of Music - Love in Hard Times - Music - New York Times

THE ARC OF A LOVE AFFAIR: On the eve of a month-long career retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- including six nights on "Songs from The Capeman" -- the NYT's Jon Pareles pens an appreciation of Paul Simon:
[T]the thread running through Mr. Simon’s songs is estrangement. From “I Am a Rock” to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” to “You Can Call Me Al” to the cranky reflections on his 2006 album “Surprise,” he has sung about being alienated, misplaced, restless, disillusioned. Moments of solace or satisfaction are far outnumbered by misgivings and regrets. The material comforts that he recognizes are his — as a wealthy man, as a pop success, as an American in a wider world — don’t bring him peace of mind. Neither does the finicky craftsmanship that has always marked his music. ...

Mr. Simon has turned out to be not a carpetbagger but a connoisseur and, at best, an alchemist. Being an outsider led him to choose musical ideas that didn’t need explanation, that could survive and propagate away from home. And as a craftsman he has tweaked what he borrowed, personalizing and hybridizing it. From “Scarborough Fair” to the Afro-reggae beat he recorded in Bahia with the Brazilian drummers of Olodum, Mr. Simon has been sharing ideas, not confiscating them.

He has been one embodiment of the pop process, that mixture of instinct and calculation that scouts cultural and geographical fringes for the next mainstream treat. And being Paul Simon he doesn’t simplify what he finds. He adds his beloved musical convolutions and verbal conundrums, his layers of New York cosmopolitanism, anxiety and striving. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, for a few precisely constructed minutes, Mr. Simon’s music gracefully holds estrangement at bay.

LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION: As an occasional public service of ALOTT5MA, we like to make sure folks are clear on the distinctions between things that kind of sound the same, but are, in fact, entirely different. Spurred by erroneous DJ chatter this morning, just to clarify:
No, The New Republic has not yet been remixed by Timbaland (though that would be kind of awesome).

Thursday, March 27, 2008

MAYBE THEY COULD HAVE GONE WITH CAT DEELEY: With the exception of the ill-fated Katie Lee Joel first season of Top Chef, Bravo has generally chosen folks who have some background in the field to host their shows. Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio know food, Heidi and Tim know fashion, Tyson and Niki know modelling, and Todd Oldham knows design. So what exactly qualifies Elizabeth Berkeley to host the upcoming Step It Up And Dance (though points are due for having Jerry Mitchell, choreographer of Hairspray, Legally Blonde, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as the Tim/Tom figure)? Is it her acting? Or her prior dancing experience (NSFW-- even though it's the censored version)?

South Park Episode Player

YOUR TEARS ARE SO YUMMY AND SWEET: Gratist (NSFW) Time Suck Evir: every South Park episode, online, for free on Go enjoy Scott Tenorman Must Die, and find out what all the fuss (and NYT correction) was all about. Or Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants, perhaps second only to The Onion's special issue as a cultural response to September 11. Not every South Park episode is brilliant, but certainly, enough of them have been.
THE MIND CHURNS: Wonder what it's like backstage at the Nederlander Theater for Rent? Regular commenter Sue recently toured the facility, and files this report:

The first thing I noticed is that there’s almost no wing space – unlike some of the larger Broadway shows, which need wide offstage spaces to bring their scenery on and off, here there’s just a narrow alley around the set, and that’s it. The listing of the order of the songs taped up backstage is leftover from the New York Theatre Workshop production – when they changed the order of two of the songs, they drew a little arrow between the two to show the reversal, and that’s been the show order sheet ever since. (The changed order was between Joanne’s “We’re Okay” and “I’ll Cover You.”) The two stage managers – the Production Stage Manager and SM – have been with the show since NYTW. Twelve years. Before this, neither of them had stage managed a Broadway show or a musical. The pages of the SM’s prompt book (the book with blocking, light and sound cues, etc.) are actually wearing thin and getting a little brown around the edges. The cast supposedly calls her “pinky toe” because she knows the show so well that she can tell everyone where to stand onstage, down to where their pinky toes should be. A couple of the show’s musicians have been with the show through the entire run as well.

The spike marks onstage – the taped lines and crosses showing where scenery should be placed or where actors should stand – are deliberately huge. Director Michael Greif thought it added to the look of the show. (And by the way, Greif is still very involved with the show. He comes in for cleanup rehearsals, is there when a new actor gets put in, and generally checks in with the show whenever he can. That’s very unusual – after opening night, a director leaves the show, and some never look back. Unlike some other long-running Broadway shows, some things – choreography, costumes – have even changed under his guidance during the 12 year run.) The theater was left deliberately shabby when Rent moved in. In fact, above the mezzanine, house left, there’s a hole in the ceiling. Apparently, an electrician put his foot through the ceiling while working on a vent, and the director loved it and asked them not to fix it. However, theater owners get pretty lazy when a show has been in a space this long (remember reports of the state of the Winter Garden after Cats?) Our ASM friend said that the basement floods all the time and the Nederlander is just falling apart in general. The stage technology is also stuck back in 1996. (My stage manager friend couldn’t believe that they didn’t have “moving lights,” but it’s been a while since I’ve been a techie, so I can’t go into this in depth.) When Rent moves out, expect some major renovations before the next show moves in. One thing the owners did do is replace the leopard-print carpeting in the theater a few years ago with something more muted. Scraps of the old leopard print line the hallways backstage as soundproofing.

Past the wing space and into the backstage area, the walls are completely covered with paper (including rehearsal schedules, notices about Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS events, and a daily sign-in sheet for the cast), photos, and posters. The dressing rooms go up four flights, with only two dressing rooms on the ground floor. Each room is shared by two actors, regardless of star power or size of their part in the show. The musicians are on the top floor. On the wall going up the stairs from the ground floor is a large piece of posterboard with several photos pasted onto it. The ASM told us that Jonathan Larson brought in the board during rehearsals at NYTW and asked everyone to bring in pictures of people they knew who had AIDS or had died from AIDS, or just people they loved in general, so they would be surrounded by love. In the center is a picture of Jonathan with his arm around a man in a hospital bed. The production team moved the board to the Nederlander, and since then, people have kept bringing in pictures, so they extend past the board, all along the walls, and up the stairway for four flights. On another wall, little cut out pictures of the head of every actor who has appeared in Rent are gathered in a collage. There have only been about 120 people in Rent since it started, and many actors have returned to it again and again, or have moved up from swing roles (a swing is like an understudy who is usually a background/chorus member and can cover several parts rather than just one) to leading roles. The actor we saw playing Benny that night was the original Paul, the character who leads the Life Support meeting. These days, actors regularly go in and out of the show, with swings playing a lot of the roles. The ASM told us that, during the pre-riot scenes, the number of cops (supposed to be three) changes depending on how many swings are playing roles, and that there was actually a performance with no cops onstage at all.

Right before you enter the stage right wings from backstage, there’s a large, beautiful oval wood carving that says, “Thank You Jonathan Larson.” Larson’s great-uncle made it for the show’s Broadway opening, and the wood around the edges is worn to a soft finish because all the actors touch it before they go onstage. It echoed what has been in my own thoughts every time I’ve seen the show or listened to the soundtrack. Thank you, Jonathan Larson.
TWO FISH OUT OF WATER: Look no further than the Ninth Circuit for your yuk-yuk needs. According to the press release announcing Kozinski's elevation to Chief Judge:
Judge Kozinski also believes that looks count, though he can provide no support for that proposition.
As much as you hate to admit it, he's right again.

Meanwhile, pop culture has asked if we can bring it down for a minute. Juliana Hatfield (still working? Huh.) thinks that The Hills is ruining society because it prevented her from searching for a cure for cancer. She was getting so close when she wrote that song in 5:4 time about fucking a cute movie star at a party.

Sourced: California Lawyer and TVTattle.
ONCE PARDONED, THEY ARE GIVEN NEW IDENTITIES AND JOBS IN DISTANT CITIES: I live in a city famed, perhaps unfairly so, for its crime, its poverty, a game called moneyball played entirely by pencil-necked geeks on laptops in their mothers' basements, and its production of baggy-pants-wearing spendthrift pop-rappers who steal from Rick James. While I live in a more residential part, under no circumstances could it be called rural. With the windows open, we could borrow sugar from the neighbors without leaving the house, and recently the city decided to behead all of the trees on our street. Yet there we were this morning, Spacewoman and I, walking to the bus stop, when we encountered a pack of roving wild turkeys -- a male and five females. Have you ever seen a male wild turkey up close? It's big.

They reminded me of the famed Feral Parrots of Brooklyn, and also the Feral Parrots of Hyde Park, whose publicist sucks.

To woo academic recruits, college makes them stars | Philadelphia Inquirer | 03/27/2008

SOON THEY'LL BE SLIDING DOWN THE RAZOR BLADE OF LIFE: In an effort to woo eight academic recruits and boost its overall profile and yield, one Pennsylvania university has taken to tv commercials, billboards and pizza box ads to woo them into matriculating.

Seriously. Like having this show up on a slide at the movie theater: "Briana Turnbaugh. You listen to Kanye rap about the Good Life. Let Wilkes University help you actually get it. (Now throw your hands up in the sky.)" Or these eight ads running on MTV targeted to each of the students. I believe we've reached a limit.

YouTube - Phonebook Prank

THE ONE BOOK IN EVERY HOUSEHOLD: It's inevitable that our kids will have no idea what the Yellow Pages were, and that's a shame because they might not appreciate the jumbo-sized prank these Tufts students pulled off.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

AND JUST TO BE CLEAR, THERE ARE THREE SCHOOLS IN NEW YORK OFFERING AN INTERNATIONAL BACCALAUREATE, NOT ONE: I never had the slightest intention of watching Bravo's Real Housewives of New York City, as I am not normally a fan of what I'll call observational reality shows (The Real World being the obvious example of the genre). But then I found out that the significant other of one of the "housewives" -- and believe me, never has that term been used more loosely than it is on this show -- is a person with whom I worked closely for some years. So I tuned in to assuage my total disbelief that this person would agree to set foot on a reality show, and that's it, I'm hooked.

I can't decide whether the point of the show is to allow wanna-be ladies of a certain NYC scene to ogle the lives they would like to have or whether it's to encourage viewers to sit there in astonishment that people could be so fantastically un-self-aware. Just like My Super Sweet 16 (and now that I think about it, that's the other show in this genre that I find endlessly fascinating and horrifying at the same time), I just sit there and wait for the next unbelievably horrible thing to come out of someone's mouth. I know that this all sounds totally judgmental. But you know what? You agree to do a show like this, you get to have snarky bloggers be all judgy at you.

Is anybody watching this one?
ONE NIGHT ONLY: Tonight's Idol results show reminds us that this is a voting competition, not a singing competition, and it's not enough to not just be the least-sucky performer of the lot. You have to persuade people to support you with their phone calls, and every week matters. Indeed, the surprising third member of the bottom three has some serious pondering to do, but I believe "Jolene" is within his/her bailiwick, assuming David Cook doesn't have dibs on covering the White Stripes cover of it.

Was tonight's ouster premature? Yes. Did we lose the singer who might have won the competition? No. But am I disappointed? Of course.
NO DAY BUT [THREE MORE MONTHS FROM] TODAY: Either some magical Manhattan groundhog has seen his shadow or ticket sales have been really strong, because they're pushing back the end of RENT's lease to September 1, 2008.
STILL NOT AS COOL AS HUNG'S CEREAL CREATION: In an article oddly reminiscent of a Top Chef Quickfire Challenge, NYT food writer Henry Alford attempts to cook for his friends with nothing but ingredients from various 99 Cent Stores in Manhattan, with a surprising degree of success.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

WHO KNEW I'D TURNED INTO A SOCCER MOM? This might be the first time that this blog has linked to a piece in Cookie magazine, but hey, there's a first time for everything, and certainly any magazine with the good sense to ask best-selling author Jennifer Weiner to recommend children's books with sassy female heroines (can't find a link to it, but perhaps someone can help me out) is worth our collective patronage.

In any event, I thought that this little piece on baby naming trends was dead on, as Cookie's observations on matters maternal so frequently are. One minor quibble: Mason and Walker are not "worker names"; they are "medieval craft guild names." Get with the program.
JASON CASTRO, ROSETTA STONE SALESMAN: Song choice, people. As soon as I saw the spoilered list of songs for tonight, I pretty much predicted the whole show:
  • Ramielle violated one of the ten commandments of Idol -- thou shalt not attempt a song that another competitor previously owned. She is not Carrie Underwood, 'k?
  • Chikezie and Syesha picked perfect songs for themselves, and Syesha's experiments with the subjunctive tense rocked the house.
  • Clifford the Crunchy Muppet stayed resolutely, somewhat boringly in his wheelhouse of mellow songs in multiple languages.
  • Bubbly Brooke White has no idea what "Every Breath You Take" is actually about, and just couldn't sell the song or do anything interesting with it.
  • Michael Johns again can't condense a multi-section lengthy song into a coherent 90 second greatest stanzas version, but hit his notes, dawg.
  • "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is about turning that corner and nailing the chorus. Carly Smithson didn't. She shouted, and she completely blew the bridge:
Together we can take make it to the end of the line night
Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time
I don't know what to do and I'm always in the dark
We're You're living in a powder keg like a power key (?) and giving off sparks
  • I have no idea what Young David Archuleta sang. "You're The Voice"? Reminded me of that week Chris Sligh sang Mute Math. I know he's going to win the competition, but I'd like to see him earn it a few weeks.
  • Kristy Lee Cook makes me want to move to Canada. But sappy Lee Greenwood will get her to the next round -- for her, a great song choice. But she still sucks.
  • David Cook ... well, when I saw he'd be singing "Billie Jean," I knew he'd be reworking it somehow. I did not predict he'd make it sound like a Creed song. I did not like it, and this will be a real test of his audience support. (Okay, but the judges loved it. I guess they sense YDA's vulnerability and want to promote challengers to the crown?) (And Randy: he's not the most original/innovative performer you've ever had -- I believe your show had a beat-boxer last season.)
Fienberg: "Are we supposed to believe that it's a coincidence that the recent song order went Aussie, Irish lass, half-Honduran and then Kristy singing about being American? Ew. This is just pandering. Stop staring into the camera and preaching to me about patriotism, Kristy. I'm proud to be an American too, but gracious me. Is there an untapped core of dedicated conservatives who have been waiting for a moment like this to vote for American Idol? Actually, I'll bet there are. This is probably the nail in Ramiele's coffin, in fact. "

Dan also correctly points out -- and I've heard it before, so I'm upset with myself that I forgot it -- that David Cook was actually covering Chris Cornell's cover of "Billie Jean", making him just as original as Chris Daughtry covering Live's cover of "Walk the Line". [e.t.a. Okay, so apparently they made it clear during the show as well. This is what I get for FFing whenever it's not a performance or a critique.]

At risk: Ramiele, Chikezie, Carly.
THE FINAL TIMEOUT: Chris Webber, a former #1 overall NBA draft selection, is expected to retire from the NBA tomorrow. Here's the play for which he'll always be remembered.

[Of course, technically, that game no longer happened -- Michigan forfeited the entire 1992-93 season and has removed the 1992 and 1993 Final Four banners from the Crisler Arena rafters for Webber's having accepted cash and loans from a booster since the eighth grade. Webber pled guilty to one count of criminal contempt for lying about his role in the scandal.] estimates his career professional basketball salary at $157,967,500.

A television review on Monday about “The Hills,” on MTV, gave an incorrect identification in some editions for the character who has Whitney as a close friend and colleague. She is Lauren, not Heidi.

Also in error? L.C. only said Heidi was "kinda a bitch," not a "psycho hose beast." The Times regrets the error.
SWEET THE SIN, BITTER THE TASTE IN MY MOUTH: Hey, why can't you get good sauerkraut in the United States? I've tried all of the Whole Foods stuff and all of the chain supermarket stuff, and it's just too sharply sour. In Austria and Germany (which are known in history circles as "The Cradle of Sauerkraut"), it's only mildly sour, with a hint of sweetness. You'd think that somebody would sell an authentic gourmet sauerkraut.
HIS EYES ARE ROLLING BACK IN HIS HEAD AND HE'S RUNNING ALL WEEBLY-WOBBLY: Lest anybody think I'm going all highbrow on you, what with the book-reading and all, let me just update everybody on the wonderful world of reality television:
  • As was painfully obvious to everybody paying attention to Real World/Road Rules Challenge, including the collection of 'roid monsters and frequently-concussed comprising the veteran team, the idiotic format the producers adopted ensured that the veterans' advantage would increase weekly, but that the veterans could not win the final (and only remunerative) challenge. What was not predictable was (a) that even in winning, the rookies lost, so that I think they only won either one or two challenges fair-and-square, depending on whether you think Adam threw the balancing thing; and (b) the show would go ahead and let a 300-pound guy die from heat stroke and only Brad (Brad! Diagnosing Big Easy with "Acute Vascular All Weebly Wobbly") would be quick-thinking enough to call shenanigans. I mean, some people were not only in favor of dragging the passed-out seizure guy up the beach -- they were outright livid that the paramedics wouldn't let them. How dare you let our friend's life-threateningly high body temperature and dangerous dehydration get in the way of our splitting a small pot ten ways! Of note: I think that Casey's little rant about Coral's age was intended by the producers to be a message directly to me that I'm too old to watch this show.
  • To borrow a joke from Tina Fey, I watched Paradise Hotel and it gave my TV genital warts. The show features: as many butt- and thong-shots as it can pack into an hour (doubling them up by sticking them in the "coming up after the commercial" previews); several contestants saying about people they literally just met, in all seriousness and with complete unboastful certainty, "I'm going to have sex tonight"; and the motto, adopted by the contestants in repeated toasts, "sharing is caring," meaning exactly what it sounds like. This may be the only reality show where the post-booting quarantine is for health, not secrecy, reasons. I'd have to say it's the second-skankiest show on television, right after Dancing With the Stars.
  • The Bachelor is English and some girl gave him her underwear. I wonder if she knows that in England they call them pants. Also, some girl in formal shorts just sang a melody-free song that went "I want to touch you/I want you to touch me/I want to feel you/I want you to feel me." But a capella, so I predict that ALOTT5MA readers will be divided.
STORIES FROM THE CITY, STORIES FROM THE SEA: Second try with a couple of book recommendations here. I posted this before, but then a Ludovician ate it. You won't understand that unless you read the second book I'm about to recommend.

Not more than a couple of weeks after the Wire finale, I picked up something of a companion piece, Richard Price's 1992 novel, Clockers. Price was a writer for the show, and David Simon mentioned the book frequently in interviews. Clockers is a pretty good example of why I complained a few weeks ago about the ghettoization of genre books. Although I picked it up in the crime fiction section, it's a crime novel in about the same measure as is Yiddish Policemen's Union. There is a mystery -- a murder, if you must know -- at the center of the book, but this is not a whodunit or a catch-me-if-you-can. More than that, it's a measured examination of three desperate men and why they ran out of choices. It's an excellent read, even for non-Wire fans, though if you did watch the show you'll enjoy spotting the vignettes and plot points -- including one major one, though I won't spoil it -- that ended up in the show.

And while I'm doing this if-you-liked-the-show-you'll-love-this-book dance, let me give my highest recommendation to The Raw Shark Texts, particularly for Lost fans. This book is an unusual idea executed brashly and deftly. One can't do the book justice just by relating the plot -- it's a fish story about a guy who loses his memory (or has it taken from him) after a tragedy and sets out to get it back. It's easier to say that the first two thirds of the book are like The Phantom Tollbooth as translated by Kafka. The last third is virtually a scene-by-scene reenactment of a book via a famous movie, as directed by Michel Foucault (actually, I don't know anything about Foucault but I imagine that this is up his alley), except what we see is all explicitly a metaphor, and the fact that it's an extended and hyperdetailed allusion to a movie is an important plot point (the main character tells us it's coming, and another character tells us when it arrives). The book simultaneously is ostentatiously intellectual while frolicking in lowbrow culture, mixing science fiction with linguistic theory. At one point it mentions treating a text like a flip book, and later it features an actual flip-book animation made out of text. It's a serious book, but one of its two principal villains is, hilariously, Microsoft Word. It's very smart, very funny, and very sad, often all at the same time, and I hope everybody reads it (especially Neal Stephenson fans, I think).

Monday, March 24, 2008

THE BOOK OF SELLS: I know it is just me, but I cringe every time someone on sports radio refers to the Boston Celtics. The one thing I remember from CEL 70 - World of the Celts, is that the bias in Celtic languages is heavily in favor of a hard "c." i.e., Kel-tic. I don't even much like basketball, but this bothers me. I am aware that BBC will refer to the Scottish football team of the same name with a soft "c." This is evidence of English imperialism and their Irish, Welsh, and Scot quislings, who have adopted the soft "c." Yet, somehow, the legacy of English imperialism in its effort to stamp out the native languages of Great Britain bothers me less than its effect on my short daily encounters with Razor Voice Ralph Barbieri on KNBR 680, the Sports Leader.
LIFE BEGINS IN ABOUT 9-1/2 HOURS: This crept up on me, but the major league baseball regular season begins at 6:00 am tomorrow (Tues) EDT. I believe I have missed just one Red Sox season opener since 1975 (in 1985, I was backpacking in the oh so cold back country near Yosemite). My sister will be at the game, the lucky lass.
IF MARC HAD ONLY CREATED THE LOMBARDA PIZZA WITH BAKED EGG, BITTO CHEESE, MOZZARELLA AND HOMEMADE COTECHINO SAUSAGE, AND NOT FOLLOWED IT WITH THE SQUASH TORTELLI WITH BUTTER, SAGE AND AMARETTI, DAYENU: The James Beard Foundation has unveiled its 2008 nominees for excellence in food cooking, writing and service. Among the highlights in the culinary Oscars:
  • Two nominations for my friends at Philadelphia's Vetri and Osteria -- outstanding service (the former) and best new restaurant (the latter), and a regional best chef nomination for Jose Garces of Amada & Tinto.
  • ALOTT5MA faves Mark Bittman, Masaharu Morimoto and Laurent Tourondel all getting book nods, plus a Barbra Kingsolver nomination for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.
  • Among the journalistic efforts nominated, the Sun-Times' "Fish fraud: The menus said snapper, but it wasn't!" expose; Manny Howard's "My Empire of Dirt" (subsistence farming in Brooklyn?); GQ's Alan Richman on "The Seven Temples of the Food World" (jealous!) and "The Year of the Pig" (a David Chang profile in which he doesn't come off as quite as nuts as last week's New Yorker piece).
  • Two tv nominations for Top Chef.
  • Restaurateur of the Year nominees are a pretty well-known bunch: Batali/Bastianich, Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Chicago's Rich Melman of the LEYE empire, and Seattle's Tom Douglas.
Tell us what we should know about this year's nominees.
SADLY, NO APPEARANCE BY ROBIN SPARKLES: In something that seems to be one part "Let's Go The Mall" and one part "That's How You Know," the fine folks at ImprovEverywhere used a California food court to stage their brief musical "Can I Get A Napkin, Please?" before an unsuspecting audience. Videotape and more are available.
I REALLY AM A ROCK STAR: How awesome is it that Kay Hanley, former lead singer of Letters to Cleo (perhaps best known for their awesome Cheap Trick cover used in 10 Things I Hate About You) has now become a fairly successful children's artist? Recent credits include the theme to "My Friends Tigger and Pooh," a pair of songs for Care Bears media, and serving as a backup singer on the Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana tour.
SPICY OR MILD? Al Copeland, founder of Popeye's Chicken (as well as smaller and now-defunct Cajun chain Copeland's of New Orleans), has died. Despite whatever addictive chemical they may put in KFC to make you crave it fortnightly, Popeye's remains my fried chicken of choice, not just for the awesomely spicy chicken, but for the dirty rice and the invariably excellent biscuits. Also of interest in the obit? Popeye's didn't take its name from the spinach-loving cartoon character, but rather from Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection.
ARE YOU SAYING ACTORS CAN'T CHANGE THE WORLD? I GUESS NOBODY BOTHERED TO TELL SHARON STONE! If The A.V. Club is going to list ostensibly 17 pro-environment films, tv shows and songs that failed to entertain such as "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" and Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground, we ought to be able to come up with at least one or two that worked, right?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

ALL OF ME, WHY NOT SHAME ALL OF ME? The NYT explores what it's like to live with the stigma of having been in a collegiate a cappella group. James Van Der Beek is among those survivors quoted, and, yes, The Office's Andy Bernard is referenced.

Your confessionals and links to random a cappella performances are, of course, welcome.
ART ISN'T EASY, EASY ISN'T ART: Allow me to join the shower of praise in the current London/Roundabout transfer of Sunday In The Park With George, which is a remarkable production of a remarkable show. Even though the much longer first act takes entirely in 19th Century Paris, both it and the second act, set in 1984 New York, manage to tell us much about creativity, humanity, and art. Particular credit is due to London transfer leads Daniel Evans (in the roles originated by Mandy Patinkin) and Jenna Russell (in the roles originated by Bernadette Peters). For those who enjoy the American musical generally or Sondheim in particular, this is essential. I would also support the Tony Awards adding a special category to recognize the production design here--while the scenic design is deliberately minimalistic (a plain white stage with doors on the side), the production makes brilliant use of projections to recreate paintings and makes brilliant use of special effects in the "Putting It Together" number, which, in addition to being remarkably well-sung, is a perfect illustration of synchronization between performers, music, and a tech crew.

The Man, The Brand, The Plan To Rule TV

It's not that he's multi-talented; he's anti-talented, not a performer but a professional "personality," the latest variation on a type as old as broadcasting: the guy who stands there and introduces the acts. He's a low-key cheerleader who keeps the show moving and, with the judges as natural foils, allies himself with the audience and the contestants, never threatening to upstage the performers, even if he could.

For all that, he stops mercifully short of outright sycophancy, a la Ed McMahon. Never a "You are correct, sir," even to Jackson. Part of the Seacrest shtick is coming across as a little too cool for his role, yet a good enough sport to play along. Seacrest isn't lovable, nor foolish enough to try to be. He's just aiming for tolerable -- bull's-eye.

Or as Allison Glock wrote about Seacrest back in May 2004: "A successful Personality attracts a large audience without challenging them. He lulls and coddles and strives not to alienate. He presents himself as likable, nonthreatening and, most important, reachable -- never too handsome or too happening or too sharp. Theirs is not a world of superlatives but of glossy averageness, the 5-foot-9 man, the pleated khaki, the Dave Matthews Band. A successful Personality never, not for a second, worries about being cool.... Seacrest explains: People don't react to me with awe, like a movie star. It's 'What's up, Ryan?' Like I'm their friend. And I want that. I want to be the world's friend."

There is a reason why Ryan Seacrest succeeds in a role at which Billy Bush annoys and from which Carson Daly has more-or-less disappeared, and I don't believe it's anything that can ever be taught.

Peeps Show 2 -

PROJECT PEEPWAY: In honor of the Easter holiday, the Washington Post has for the second straight year sponsored a Peeps Diorama Contest involving our marshmallow-based friends. They received over 800 entries; here are the 37 best.

Related: Philadelphia Weekly visits the Peeps factory in Bethlehem, PA, as well as other area snack providers like Utz, Rita's, Tastykake and Herr's.