Review

Justice League is a Huge Disappointment

Justice League.jpg

Justice League is a film that I actually saw in a theater. My advice is to wait for it on Blu-Ray so that you only end up wasting a little cash. It is not essential, but it is a good way to waste two hours, so there's that.

Without spoiling the movie, I'll tell you what's wrong with it:

  • Too much Affleck.
  • Not enough Godot.
  • All the Cavill you're ever going to need.
  • No where near enough Momoa.

I liked the Cyborg character, but they didn't develop the relationship he had with his father into something that I could recognize as a story. They did a better job with the Flash, but do you know who had a better Flash? The Quicksilver character played by Evan Peters was far more interesting. 

After watching this, I honestly can't tell you what happened. And, before you think I'm some sort of Marvel movie fan, I'm really not. I'm not a fan of this genre at all. I remember that I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Volume Two but I can't remember anything that happened because it was such a blur of things happening. So much has to happen! in these films. Slow it down and tell a story.

Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain

The Jesus and Mary Chain are a band that defies every label that you can throw at them. They have built a career out of being difficult on purpose, no matter what the cost. 

If they became disciples of feedback in the eyes of the media, they would abandon feedback and hire a drum machine. If they became a little too dance oriented, then they'd swallow their pride and hire a real drummer. If the songs became too poppy, they'd throw violent imagery into the lyrics and abandon all pretense of being commercial. And just when their music label would reject an album, they would sign with the original label that discovered them and forge ahead.

No one ever did more to sabotage their career than the Jesus and Mary Chain. They would turn up drunk, alienate the promotional apparatus of the entire British music industry, and play 15 minutes before walking off of the stage. Whenever they needed to speak to someone influential or important, they would take the piss and say the wrong things. They soared high with Creation's Alan McGee and dumped him as soon as they saw the bags of cash that a major label were willing to throw at them. When years of debauchery and infighting left them "stoned and dethroned," no one wanted to put out their album Munki. But it was McGee who welcomed them back into the fold and saved them from embarrassment. Loyalty is hardly the watchword for a band that dispensed with members as often as the Mary Chain. It has always been a William and Jim Reid situation; they even sacked their faithful drum machine. The book should have spelled out what happened to the device that featured so prominently in their early years. Were it not for the fickle, drum machine-averse American audiences, that thing would probably still be on tour with the bad this very summer.

Reading this book made me angry that I can't go see them. All they had to do was find a way to make it to Texas, and I would be there. Hey, maybe next time.

Everything is chronological, and that makes sense in that the story of the Mary Chain is one of rolling through the thick fog of pop music history. This is primarily how the book flows. The band would do something massive, and then fuck it all up. They would write a beautiful song and mangle how it would be presented to the public. At exactly the point where appearing on Top of the Pops or the BBC would have thrown them into the realm of superstar acts, they got themselves banned. When they needed to play a great show in front of a large crowd, they would walk off after abusing them with curses and feedback. It is exhausting to read, but essential for understanding how they created artistic success without ever selling out. That's the explosive, vital lesson of the Mary Chain--you can make it in spite of yourself, and you can do great things without having to compromise your integrity. Rock and Roll is not about playing a perfect set for 90 minutes to an adoring crowd that gets every hit they want to hear. It's about danger, mistakes, and passionately fucking everything up in front of people who get everything they weren't expecting.

Several celebrities have cameos in the book, but none more hilarious than a hapless Paul Weller, who crossed paths with the band and gave them passive aggressive advice and things to laugh at. None of this degrades the legend of the Modfather in any way, shape or form.

I have a very personal connection to how they subverted everything in the 1980s, but I would not consider myself an obsession fan. I discovered them on MTV like everyone else because the American Midwest was never friendly for Indie bands from England.

The very first thing I ever read about them was a baffled album review in People Magazine from 1985. What the hell was Psychocandy? Who the hell were these guys? Good God, no one knew, but they were slightly blasphemous and they had the right hair so they had to be good, right? It was the innovation, dummy. They were influencers without figuring anything out. They were shy but abusive, reclusive but on tour constantly.

Nobody ever took a bigger right turn from a debut album to a second album than the Mary Chain. Go back and listen to "April Skies" and then listen to anything from Psychocandy. Who reinvents themselves like that? Who says, "Alright, that's enough of what just made us huge. Here's something completely different." No two albums sound alike and nothing could illustrate their artistic merit better than the diversity of their sound and the reach of their efforts to eliminate everything boring from music.

Where do you slot them? Which genre describes them? Who gets to claim them--noise merchants, shoegazers, 90s alt-legends, or aging hipsters? They have credibility everywhere and belong to no one. They are the closest thing there is to a slightly different, but wholly separate version of Echo & the Bunnymen; when all other comparisons fail, just put them in the bucket with "English and accomplished" and leave it at that. The parallels are stark, but the Mary Chain never made an Electrafixion record and they never made a sleepy stinker like What Are You Going to Do With Your Life. They have their clunkers, but don't we all? Show me a great, interesting band and there will be at least one or two things that make you look away out of embarrassment.

The reason why this book works as a career narrative is because it doesn't shy away from explaining just exactly what they did right and wrong in equal measures. It focuses on the songs, the albums, and the tours and it breaks down the way they dissolved into dysfunction and thrown punches. It takes you through the embarrassing, cliched use of alcohol and drugs without looking for pathos.

There's even a disastrous detour through the Far East, replete with cancelled gigs and confused fans. The band went from broke to rich to broke to whatever they are now without abandoning whatever it is that passes for artistic credibility. There isn't even a butter ad in their immediate past, but how could you sell butter with one of their songs? You might be able to sell your soul to the devil for an album like Automatic, but why would you want to? The Reid brothers were there first, and they suffered on the cross for everything they did. They have lived and died for your rock and roll sins.

Isn't that enough?

Creation Stories

CS.jpg

Creation Stories is a book I enjoyed reading, but it did leave me wanting more.

I should state, up front, this review of the book is not a normal one. The book came out two years ago, and I just got around to it recently. I do recommend this for fans of the British music genre known as "Britpop" because you'll get a fair amount of background information from the book. You'll want to view it as a historical look at British independent music from the early Eighties until the end of the Nineties. It is not comprehensive, but there are a fair amount of good anecdotes to give you a superficial understanding of where Creation Records and Alan McGee fit into everything.

McGee downplays himself throughout the book. He could rightly call himself a genius at several things, but specifically he was enormously gifted when it came to spotting talent. This is a combination of knowing how to size up people, evaluate their skills, hear what they could do on stage, and make a business judgment about them relative to the music industry. Many people have done this and done quite well; McGee found the biggest band since U2 and a dozen other bands that were both commercially and artistically successful. He found Oasis, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Primal Scream, and a slew of other bands. He made millions for himself and for the artists that he worked with. He had his finger on the pulse and built a successful company.

Now, the fact that he did all of that while out of his mind on drugs is neither here nor there. The book details his prowess finding artists and it reveals the failures he had both professionally and personally. This is an honest book, through and through.

McGee could have been more specific and he could have researched dates and times and really looked at how Creation Records moved and shaped the culture. He could have done one book separately on Oasis and one on the company; it all blends together after a while. He is probably on the hook for another telling of these stories, and that's all right--there's so much more happening that you miss out on. I would have liked more focus on the business side of things, just to get more of a feel for how he ran things. What I came away with was an understanding that this wasn't a madcap laugh or a lucky break. Building Creation Records wasn't just what he did while on drug holiday or while sleeping on trains. He bridged the music scenes from Manchester, Glasgow, and London and made local acts global stars. He put music in the hands of people who never would have discovered it. He spent millions on records that otherwise would have never been heard. 

I do think it was a good read. I do wish there were specific year by year breakdowns and summaries of how big the company got, how big was the roster, why bands would come and go, and how it all compared to other labels in the same business. He breezes through some of these details and you don't really get the whole story of what happened when Oasis dwarfed the rest of their roster of bands and why some acts broke out and why some faded away. I don't know if he's trying to be even-handed or spare feelings, but he's relentlessly hard on himself and honest about his failings. In and of itself, McGee's harrowing descriptions of life at home and his health scares makes this a worthy read.

If McGee gets around to writing about more of the things I've outlined above, then all the better.

Sing is a Better Movie Than Some Would Have You Believe

Really, what are the standards for an animated film to be considered "good?"

Despite some bad reviews here and here, I actually saw Sing and I thought it was a good movie. I liked it about as much as I liked Zootopia, so if you didn't like that, well, I don't know what to say. This film does not avoid sadness and it does not insult the intelligence of children. Yes, it is fun and upbeat and has some slapstick to it, but it does not avoid telling you that show business sucks most of the time. If I had to point to one thing that allows the film to succeed it is that it arrives without assuming you haven't already seen what goes on behind the scenes at talent shows. It assumes you know that there's going to be conflict and drama.

Sing owes a lot to the animation esthetic at Illumination (the Minion movie, whatever else) and you can easily be dazzled by what you see. It's a rich, diverse tapestry and, a few stereotypes aside, it works very well on the screen. So, relax. You're not going to be ripped off.

Now, having said that, the plot is a mile wide and an inch deep. You know that down on his luck Buster Moon is going to take a fall and climb right back up. You know how the movie will end when the whole thing kicks off, but it's the journey that works. You will not mind the episodic format and you will want to see more of certain characters. There's so much happening in this film that the plot will not bother you at all because you're already seeing all the different ways these characters are looking for some sort of validation.

Somehow, they made Matthew McConaughey lose every bit of Texas from his voice. Somehow, they managed to make Scarlett Johansson not sound exactly like herself but like a teenaged girl instead. Reese Witherspoon and Seth McFarlane are part of a broadly drawn cast of weirdos and misfits and it all somehow works. McFarlane in particular fits into the whole thing like a completely square peg being dropped through the other side of a round hole. He's not even really part of the team, he just kind of floats through this thing like comic relief. And, as always, you're going to wonder why Jennifer Hudson doesn't already have her own damned franchise already.

There's an especially weird diversion towards the end of the second act that involves washing cars and acting loopy and it's absolutely worth the price of admission. The rest I'm not giving away.

 

The Pleasant Surprise of Zootopia

It may be late, but my review of Zootopia is positive on all fronts because of how much I enjoyed the film. I saw Zootopia over the weekend as an afterthought--we were bored, there wasn't anything else worth seeing, and so we figured, why not?

Spoilers ahead, so pause here and come back after you've seen it. And if you want to wait for the Blu-Ray or the on-demand version, go ahead. You won't be disappointed.

Zootopia is a Disney animated feature that picks up where almost no other Disney films leave off--with a hint of darkness and a tinge of the hopeless. It's not a bouncy, thoughtless romp through nonsensical product placement gags and Baby Boomer satire gags (although putting Tommy Chong in the film is as counter-culture as you can get without completely blowing minds and trampling through the fields of nostalgia). It's not fall down funny but it's amusing enough to see again.

And that's what I really liked about the film--it lived in its own world and didn't try too hard. It didn't go for the fart and gross-out jokes. No one sucked on a urinal cake. No one's ass explodes in a brown cloud of doom. There is a sick burn that weaves through the story line--it's called a hustle--and it works on a number of levels. It may be one of the first animated comedies that truly steps away from Baby Boomer humor and leaves the Simpsons era behind. That may explain why I liked it so much.

Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman have great chemistry as the leads in this. She plays an idealist and he plays an anti-hero and their collective backstory informs the plot without overwhelming anything. This did not play like an attempt for an actor to play something in a movie that their kids can see--the casting works out in the long run because of the banter they have and the conclusion to the film, which has a moment that is noticeably scarier--and more honest--than the usual Disney fare. 

Where does it fit in? Well, this was a smart film with some hard edges. I would put Zootopia just below The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, but that's very good company. I would say it's as good as Brave without the hard to parse accents. And Brave was a very, very good film that has been overlooked. These four animated films represent the best of the films that are not quite as good as Frozen, and if you haven't seen any of them, they're a pleasant discovery for anyone who enjoys animated films. This film was much, much better than Kung Fu Panda 3 and I preferred it to Inside Out (which I did not care for, but that means I'm merely an idiot, of course).

Really, this wasn't junk. We've seen a slew of junk animated films over the last few years and a handful of really strange and densely plotted things that should never have been made. This was a near murder mystery with more emphasis on the mystery aspect. There's even a twist at the end that works. How often can you say that?

John Boyega and That Stormtrooper Outfit


Here's my first reaction to seeing John Boyega in a stormtrooper uniform on the surface of a desert planet.

Cinematically, this is a single reaction shot, designed to orient the audience/viewer to a new scene or the beginning of a scene. Boyega rises up, gives a solid reaction, and then moves in the frame to a new perspective that does not appear in the clip.

This suggests that the actor has been knocked out, incapacitated, or is recovering from being struck or disabled in some way. His shocked demeanor supports that.

The idea that he is, in fact a stormtrooper is a stretch for me because he is considered one of the "good guys." That would suggest the Boyega is wearing the uniform as a ruse and nothing more. He put on the armor in order to escape from a situation or to pass himself off as someone he is not. Where's the helmet? Removed because this is not who he is and this is not his actual uniform? Probably.

The Internet exploded with outrage; however, in keeping with the cinematic history, using a stormtrooper uniform to escape detection or deceive the real bad guys goes back to Episode Four, which, of course, begins with a crash-landing on the desert planet that has seen so much action.

I could be entirely wrong, of course, and I'll eat my words a year from now...

Christopher Orr's 30 Years of Coens


Christopher Orr is just wrapping up an impressive task--looking back at the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. It's an impressive and well-reasoned endeavor.

I would rank Miller's Crossing their greatest film, and a better gangster movie than Goodfellas. I have not seen A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty, or Inside Llewyn Davis. I have little or no interest in doing so, and I'm sure that this makes me ridiculous, but oh well.

The worst film by the Coen brothers is, of course, The Ladykillers. Good God, what a terrible film--albeit one with some hilarious characters and a lot of promise. The Coens don't have bad ideas, nor do they fail as filmmakers. Sometimes, the material does in a film, no matter what.

The Economist Reviews The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.


How slaves built American capitalism


Patsey was certainly a valuable property
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
By Edward Baptist.
“FOR sale: a coloured girl, of very superior qualifications…a bright mulatto, fine figure, straight, black hair, and very black eyes; very neat and cleanly in her dress and person.” Such accounts of people being marketed like livestock punctuate Edward Baptist’s grim history of the business of slavery.
Although the import of African slaves into the United States was stopped in 1807, the country’s internal slave trade continued to prosper and expand for a long time afterwards. Right up until the outbreak of the civil war in 1861, the American-born children and grandchildren of enslaved Africans were bought cheap in Virginia and Maryland to be sold dear in private deals and public auctions to cotton planters in the deep South.
Tall men commanded higher prices than short ones. Women went for less than men. The best bids were for men aged 18 to 25 and for women aged 15 to 22. One slave recalled buyers passing up and down the lines at a Virginia slave auction, asking, “What can you do? Are you a good cook? Seamstress? Dairy maid?” and to the men, “Can you plough? Are you a blacksmith?” Slaves who gave surly answers risked a whipping from their masters.
Raw cotton was America’s most valuable export. It was grown and picked by black slaves. So Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.
Take, for example, the astonishing increases he cites in both cotton productivity and cotton production. In 1860 a typical slave picked at least three times as much cotton a day as in 1800. In the 1850s cotton production in the southern states doubled to 4m bales and satisfied two-thirds of world consumption. By 1860 the four wealthiest states in the United States, ranked in terms of wealth per white person, were all southern: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia.
Mr Baptist cites the testimony of a few slaves to support his view that these rises in productivity were achieved by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of “calibrated pain”. The complication here was noted by Hugh Thomas in 1997 in his definitive history, “The Slave Trade”; an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.
Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

Jaime Fuller Shows Us How to Hate Lena Dunham


When this whole Lena Dunham thing exploded, I was living in Germany. I still don't get what it's about, other than that it fills a void in HBO's programming and gives hipsters something to fret about.

Jaime Fuller is the real star of this article--this is how to hate someone without actually giving us proof she hates Dunham. I suspect it is that intellectual envy that sets in when someone is given way more attention and money than they deserve. Elizabeth Wurtzel comes to mind.

In the arts, the worst thing you can do is become wildly successful at a very young age and enjoy your success. To the vast majority of people in this country, Dunham is a New York thing that they don't much care about. The entirety of that slice of the movie Frozen, where Idina Menzel--at the age of 42--sings Let it Go, is a thing. It is something that has resonated through the popular culture and will have a timelessness that will serve as a reference point for this generation of kids.

Your garden variety hipsters will never see a Disney film but what they are missing is the fact that Menzel--the consummate New York theater voice with Broadway chops and her own Tony--has crossed the hell over. There are a lot of other Menzels out there, but Dunham isn't one of them. That's because her thing is of precious value to a handful of people who write about their obsessions. She is the Captain Beefheart of modern popular culture. Everyone hip knows who she is, but the plebes and peasants ain't buying it.

The rejection of Dunham isn't about the fact that she is from New York. Good God, people are enthralled with New York because every single television show is about New York and stars interesting people from New York, right? What the hell were Seinfeld and Friends but an over-hyped pair of love letters to NYC mailed in each week from Southern California?

What will Dunham mean to kids who are now living in the American Midwest and will never see her show? Miss Fuller knows what the score is--Dunham isn't so much as a hit as she is a manufactured bit of old hat.

Iron Man 3


Iron Man 3 is easily one of the least disappointing films of the last year or so, and raises the bar on summer action films. I saw it today and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Here's where the film succeeds: in dialogue alone, it is worth seeing. The action, the special effects, and the seamlessness of the visual movement of the film is state-of-the-art and rendered quite well. The film is cut to be quick, and they really took this film down to the essentials. It could have been a three hour film, without question, but it is chopped up to make it move. But it is the dialogue that makes it a film that takes the standard for summer films and raises it to a new level.

After seeing this film, and how it fits into the Marvel Universe of films (because Thor's on the way, and isn't there a Captain America film coming and then another Avengers film?), you have to wonder--what the hell are they going to do to make Star Wars better than any of these films?

Someone is going to have to work very hard to ensure that Star Wars does not come in with bad dialogue and poor plotting. The Marvel films are burying everyone right now.

And I will watch Star Trek on DVD. I'm just not that into terrorism films.

Did Peter Jackson Ruin the Legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien?


It would seem fitting to revisit the idea that director Peter Jackson made unconscionable changes to the material used in the original Lord of the Rings triology. What with The Hobbit now out and people grumbling about it, there's a good reason to delve into the subject at hand.

Christopher Tolkien has worked on properly organizing his late father's literary estate. This article talks about that effort. But, I think we need to remember that it was New Line cinema that should have been credited with being as evil as any other entity:
The lawyers for the Tolkien Estate, those of the Tolkien Trust, and Tolkien's publisher HarperCollins demanded $150 million in damages, as well as observers' rights on the next adaptations of Tolkien's work. A lawsuit was necessary before an agreement was reached in 2009. The producers paid 7.5% of their profits to the Tolkien Estate, but the lawyer, who refuses to give a number, adds that "it is too early to say how much that will be in the future." 
However, the Tolkien Estate cannot do anything about the way New Line adapts the books. In the new Hobbit movie, for example, the audience will discover characters Tolkien never put in, especially women. The same is true for the merchandise, which ranges from tea towels to boxes of nuggets, with an infinite variety of toys, stationery, t-shirts, games, etc. Not only the titles of the books themselves, but also the names of their characters have been copyrighted. 
"We are in the back seat," Cathleen Blackburn comments. In other words, the Estate can do little but watch the scenery, except in extreme cases-- for example, preventing the use of the name Lord of the Rings on Las Vegas slot machines, or for amusement parks. "We were able to prove that nothing in the original contract dealt with that sort of exploitation."
Hollywood's penchant for creative accounting screwed the Tolkien estate for years after the successful release of the original trilogy and now we're going to face yet another series of lawsuits and negotiations over the profits from The Hobbit? Ugh.

What surprises me is that there is no discernible backlash against Jackson, his producers and financiers, and the studio that will release the films. There is no significant threat to the commercial success of these endeavors, save the overall displeasure with the films that seems to have taken hold, and there is nothing in the way of a credible backlash. At the very least, you'd think that, if the son of the man who wrote the books has called it all an evisceration, then there should be some sort of serious effort to thwart the films from being wildly successful.

That backlash will never arrive. What is different now is that the people who built the Tolkien legacy--the young and the old and the literary and the linguistic--during the 1960s have largely surrendered to the crass commercialism of the age and are irrelevant to the discussion. They can bleat on about how it was all ruined, but until someone can agree upon who the rightful culprit really is, the films will go on and the books will gradually diminish in importance.

What a shame.

Brave


I guess I'm not cool.

The only reason why I think Brave hasn't gotten great reviews is because the reviewers don't want to appear to be enthusiastic, awed, or impressed by Pixar's latest effort. IMDB has it at a 7.8 out of 10.

Really? That low? Which film did you watch?

The film that I watched was amazing. I would give it a nine and a half. I would call it the best animated film of the year, bar none. I would put it up there with Finding Nemo and Tangled. If Finding Nemo had been done with the same level of technology that Pixar had available to it with Brave, wow.

Purely as animation, Brave is a masterpiece. The story is fantastic. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out and the voice acting is superb. Kelly Macdonald is so good in this film that it will open up an entirely new career for her if she chooses to follow that path. It's an original story and it absolutely hits you in the chest. I wish there was more done with the neolithic history of Scotland and with the stone circles and things of that nature. I really liked the historical and social aspect of the film, which made it even more interesting to me.

My only theory on the bad reviews would be this--because Brave is about a young girl, and is primarily about her struggles and her identity, there is a gender backlash against it. Someone else is going to have to write their dissertation on this. Someone a hell of a lot smarter than me is going to have to figure out why people are giving this film lukewarm reviews.

Is it because of a fickle marketplace? One wrapped up in latent geekery and superhero worship? I hated Madagascar 3 and deemed it unworthy of a review. I thought it was junk and I got bored with it, fast.

During Brave, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The detail and the design choices are really impressive. And, we're not just talking about Merida's hair; we're talking forests and castles and chases and the sequence where she rides a horse through the forest and shoots her bow is something special.

I will not add any spoilers. I will tell you this--ignore the critics and go see Brave, no matter how old you are.

It's Not About You, Jay Caspian King


No assessment of the podcast created by Marc Maron, called WTF, should ever begin with negativity or what it means to the person doing the assessment. The show belongs to Marc Maron, but, really, it's not about him and it's not about the person being interviewed. It's about having a conversation that is open and honest.

Consequently, Jay Caspian King of the execrable Grantland site uses his own angst and neediness to run the show down and fulfill his daily/weekly quota of bullshit for the masses. This is unfortunate, since a good piece about WTF should begin and end with the fact that Marc Maron is doing a fantastic job of facilitating great conversations.

King makes it entirely about himself, and that's lamentable:
But for those, like me, who are at their happiest when listening to other people stack one layer of false modesty on top of another layer of false self-awareness, Southern California, and all its gyms and its phalanxes of actresses who hike up Runyon Canyon, can feel a bit alienating.
If this is entertainment to you, then your issue is not with the show. It's with whatever is alienating you from the rest of society. Why project that on someone else's art?
As someone who listens to the WTF podcast for an average of about 45 minutes a day, I wish there were a prettier way to describe what goes on. But outside of the occasional live show, which usually involves a bunch of comedians you've never heard of desperately reminding you of all the reasons you've never heard of them...
This is a patently unfair attack on something that Maron does very well, and that is host a live event that he records for his show. Ever heard of Joel McHale? Amy Sedaris? Will Arnett? Jonathan Katz? Those folks, and many more, have done the live shows and they are very entertaining.
As a listener, it's hard not to interject yourself into the back-and-forth. There have been times, usually early in the morning, when I've put on a WTF podcast and found myself talking, stupidly, about my own problems. And strangely, these mini-therapy sessions in which I'm talking to Maron and my steering wheel have been far more effective than anything I've found in a professional's office; perhaps it's worth wondering if Maron might be unknowingly pioneering some new technique whereby the unrelenting and unabashed narcissism of the therapist encourages the patient to indulge and discuss his own problems, at least a little bit.
I'm sorry, but I listen for the conversation. That is the artistry of what Maron does. He talks to people in an old-school way that is very open and honest. The Carrot Top show was the worst episode, period. And it failed, for me, because Carrot Top refused to talk for himself and, instead, allowed his sidekick to sandbag Maron. Rather than act confrontational, Maron allowed the conversation to unfold as it happened, and with the sidekick's lame excuses being the most revealing aspect of Carrot Top's public persona. Aside from that episode, I can't think of any others that were even remotely difficult to listen to.

The most interesting shows are when people expose who they really are--such as the episodes with Gallagher and Carlos Mencia. The best shows are the ones that are raw and honest, such as with Louis CK and Todd Glass.

The Glass episode, in particular, is humanity exposed and examined; honesty and self-awareness are run through a particularly interesting kind of wringer. I don't know how King's assessment of Maron, and what he does, can even exist without at least mentioning that show. He may listen to the show, but, brother. He ain't hearing it.

I think this is his biggest cheap shot:
Maron's interviews exist somewhere outside of the polite Tonight Show format, where one humbler, funnier person asks a self-involved, possibly vapid person some questions that have been prescreened by an army of publicists. Every Letterman and Leno interview goes down easy in the same way. Every Maron podcast self-combusts, picks itself back up, and drags itself across the 75-minute mark. The repetition of his specific traumas — "the Lorne meeting," cocaine, and comedy clubs — creates something of a narrative structure for every unctuous, predictable talking point. Maron is narcissistic, chauvinistic, and still living in the drugged-out comedy clubs of the late '80s and '90s, but he somehow pulls all these things into a powerful, compelling, and, most important, funny neurosis.
Maron has a history, and his conversations reflect that. Is he supposed to adopt a persona that appeals to a broader demographic and show us that so that his traumas are hidden away? Most emphatically, hell no. The appeal of the show is that it stays true to the way it was started--as a way of restarting Maron's career after being burned out working in political radio. The idea behind the show is deceptively brilliant. Let's sit in the garage and talk. Let's have a conversation about adult things. And that's why people have connected with it.

It's sad when someone allows their own issues to get in the way of what they're assessing in the popular culture. Marc Maron's show is one of the real gems out there, and the enthusiasm with which people continue to greet new episodes reflects that. It is a show that succeeds because it is giving people what a lot of other great podcasts are also doing--they're just dealing openly and honestly with the conversation that happens between people. Beyond that, you don't have to overthink it or inject your personal demons into the mix.

Mirror, Mirror is the Worst Piece of Crap Ever Made


The film Mirror, Mirror came out in March, so this review is neither timely nor balanced. I'm trying to keep people from wasting their time and money on the DVD package or a retread viewing, which is what I watched this evening.

I cannot believe how awful this film was. After the first hour--yes, we lasted that long--we had to leave so I cannot spoil the ending for you. The fact that I have not seen the whole thing is irrelevant--this film is an unbelievable piece of crap. A more balanced review would assess the entire film and give you a review of the highlights and lowlights.

Forget it. There are no highlights. If you watch this film, expect Julia Roberts to behave like a piece of wood. She's barely engaged. She is full of cliches. She occupies space on camera but she doesn't bring anything wicked or interesting to the role. She has no direction and no inspiration here. And when you get a little ways into the film, she actually brings out her laugh from Pretty Woman. Yes, the laugh. The jaw-hinged laugh that people identify with her role from way back when.

Roberts delivers her lines like she's answering questions on a talk show. She makes no attempt to add anything to her sarcastic, flippant reading of the lines. Nathan Lane is simply Nathan Lane here, and no effort is made to bring him anything he can use to keep the scenes going. There are no other actors worth mentioning.

The sets on this film are ridiculous. You expect a magical realm. You expect a castle, a house where the dwarves live, and a fairytale setting. Instead, you get a castle set that looks like it can be wheeled away in moments. You get a forest setting of fake trees. Why film indoors (I swear, it had to be an indoor forest and that never looks good) and why use the same forest setting again and again? It was awful and unnecessary. The house used by the dwarves has no imagination or design.

The worst set of all was the one used by Roberts to "disappear" into her private lair. Roberts walks into a mirror and then transforms before a stick house on a lake. You would think that an evil queen with a magical mirror and her own private lair would have something a little more elaborate than a hut made of sticks.

There is a kitchen scene, for example, in what is supposed to be a castle set in a magical realm, and the canisters behind the head of the young actress gamely trying to play Snow White are actually labeled Flour, Sugar, and. Peas. This is fine if you're watching a movie about your grandmother's kitchen, not so much if you're watching a movie that claims to bring the legend alive.

The dialogue is so cliche-ridden, you have to wonder at the mental capacity of the people who made it. I don't know if this will end the career of director Tarsem Singh, but it should. How he was able to manhandle this awful, poorly-conceived version onto the screen without setting the thing on fire is beyond me. Why would you inflict this on people?

God, what a horrible, horrible film.

Book Review: American Emperor


American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America [Deckle Edge][Hardcover]

David O. Stewart (Author)


I found this to be a very enjoyable book, even though much of it deals with the incomplete historical record surrounding Aaron Burr's attempt to start a revolution and/or break the Western United States away from the fledgling republican (or become the Emperor of Mexico).

This is an invaluable book for anyone who wants to understand the trial of Aaron Burr and how it came to define the rules governing treason in the United States. The legal precedents established by the courts during this period have resonated throughout American history are are no less relevant today. In fact, I would say that the legal proceedings described in this book are the best part of the entire story, and are not well understood by Americans as a whole. Aaron Burr may have been somewhat traitorous (or vainglorious), but he was, of all the founders, one of the best lawyers, if not the best (and I would put John Adams up there as the best legal mind of his age).

Fans of Thomas Jefferson will come away disappointed. His legacy has never really felt the tarnish that it should have felt, given what happened during this period. The book tells us, that, in effect, Thomas Jefferson tried and convicted Burr before there was even a trial; this would have great ramifications for Presidential power and the rule of law in subsequent tests of our legal system.

I think that I enjoyed this book because of having already read  An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson by Andro Linklater, and these two books make excellent reading.

As Stewart writes, no less than Theodore Roosevelt called Wilkinson one of (I'm paraphrasing) the worst characters in our history. Reading these two books firmly cements Wilkinson's legacy and do little to improve on Burr's. Jefferson's legacy, however, survives intact.

Book Review: The Destiny of the Republic


Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President [Hardcover]

Candice Millard


For now, I will link to the Amazon.com page for this book; I heartily recommend it and I think it was a very worthwhile effort. Candice Millard has written what I think is a very good book.

When I read this book, I came away with a much greater appreciation for two of our presidents--both James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur are all but forgotten now, but this book does a very good job of explaining why we should remember them and why we should care about what happened when a madman shot the President in the back.

Millard does an excellent job of making us care; that's a form of historical writing that skews a bit towards the David McCullough variety of history writing than it does for a more dispassionate and objective sort of thing. That's fine by me; I did not detect any overt displays of breathless admiration or any of that nonsense. Millard could have skated past why anyone should have been concerned about Garfield's personal history; instead, she painstakingly recounts what a learned, accomplished, and brilliant man Garfield was.

I especially liked the section about Garfield's rise to the presidency. I thought that this was the section that could have been enlarged and enhanced. How he came to be the man who was supposed to advance someone else and ended up being drafted at the Republican convention is, in and of itself, probably worthy of a book on its own. Garfield was an extraordinary politician, and sort of an accidental one, at that. 

Millard also does a great deal of service to the legacy of one Chester A. Arthur, a wholly unprepared man who ended up being a highly regarded president in his own right. She deftly handles the rise and fall of Roscoe Conkling and the part that Arthur played in helping the nation transition from the shocking assassination of Garfield to a presidency that no one expected would be as accomplished as it was.

She also eviscerates the legacy of Doctor Willard Bliss, whose own Wikipedia page remains rather staid and details little of the controversy that surrounded his gross incompetence. I thought that Bliss made the perfect villain for a novel, one who was vain and sure of himself and I was horrified to read, again and again, how painstakingly bad he was for Garfield. This is the best part of Millard's work--she tells the truth about a man who did a terrible job of taking care of Garfield. She reveals that, had Garfield been treated like any ordinary wounded veteran of the Civil War, he probably would have lived to be a ripe old age with the assassin's bullet still in him.

And what of the assassin? Well, Millard does a great job of explaining the madness of Charles Guiteau. She leaves in a lot of things that others would have left out; I could definitely see a lesser historian glossing over his tics and his pronouncements. There is a tendency to ignore the things that crazy people say or write but Millard chose to give us the full picture without creating a simple caricature of a nut.

My problem with the book centers around the inclusion of the sections on Alexander Graham Bell. Why bother? Bell had little to actually do with diagnosing Garfield's wound, and while he played a role in the schemes of Dr. Bliss, he really should have been given less attention. 

I thought that the strongest parts of the book were about Garfield and his family, and how he rose to great prominence before being cut down in the prime of his life before he could really accomplish anything. I thought that Millard did an extraordinary job of telling the story of how Chester Arthur stepped in and healed the nation as best he could and how the outpouring of grief for Garfield was, sadly, a temporary and quickly forgotten piece of American history. The agonizing death of the president was dealt with wonderfully and the contrasting delusions of Guiteau were very much a part of the story.

This should be done up as a film; I would think that it would do very well. I would cast it thusly:

Garfield: Kevin Kline
Doctor Bliss: Stephen Root
Chester Arthur: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Lucretia Garfield: Susan Sarandon
Charles Guiteau: Johnny Depp or James Franco

And so on, and so forth.