Friday, August 29, 2014

Happy Labor Day Weekend

No matter how thankless you think your job might be, remember that things could be worse -- you could be a Red Shirt on Star Trek.

Seriously, enjoy the holiday weekend and thank you to everyone for every job you do to make this world of ours a better place. Hope you all had a terrific summer.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Memorable Movie Monologues Part 3

Thanks to all my friends and readers who have made suggestions for other great movie monologues after my first two posts (which you may read again here and here). Now here we go with part 3.

Casablanca -- Humphrey Bogart as Rick
"Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now. Here's looking at you, kid."

The Day the Earth Stood Still -- Michael Rennie as Klaatu
"I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly. The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We, of the other planets, have long accepted this priniciple. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The test of any such higher authority is, of course, the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots. Their function is to patrol the planets in spaceships like this one and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression, we have given them absolute power over us. This power cannot be revoked. At the first sign of violence, they act automatically against the aggressor. The penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk. The result is we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises. Now we do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works. I came here to give you these facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet. But if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."

Network -- Peter Finch as Howard Beale
"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's worth. Banks are going bust. Shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be. We know things are bad, worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms, let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything, just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get MAD! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot, I don't want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad. You've got to say 'I'm a human being, God-damnit! My life has value!' So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it and stick your head out and yell 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!' I want you to get up right now. Sit up. Go to your windows. Open them and stick your head out and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!' Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad! You've got to say 'I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out and yell, and say it. 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take this anymore!'".

Pulp Fiction -- Samuel L. Jackson as Jules
"There's a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. 'The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy  My brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon you.' Now, I been sayin' that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, that meant your ass. You'd be dead right now. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin' made me think twice. See, now I'm thinkin', maybe it means you're the evil man, and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. 9mm here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. And I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd."

What Dreams May Come -- Robin Williams as Chris
"I'm sorry, babe, but there's some things I have to say. I've only got a few moments left. I'm sorry for all the things I'll never give you. I'll never buy you another meatball sub with extra sauce, that was a big one! I'll never make you smile. I just wanted us to be old together, just two old farts laughin' at each other as our bodies fell apart, together at the end by that lake in your painting. That was our Heaven, see? There's lots of things to miss. Books, naps, kisses, and fights! God, we had some great ones. Thank you for those. Thank you for every kindness. Thank you for our children, for the first time I saw them. Thank you for being someone I was always proud to be with. For your guts. For your sweetness. For how you always looked, for how I always wanted to touch you. You were my life. I apologize for every time I failed you. Especially this one."

Stay tuned for more.  Your own choices are welcome.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Enjoying a Retro Game

During my staycation, I dusted off my PlayStation3 and looked for games that weren't too violent to play with my daughter.  I found demos for Dream Chronicles and Faery: Legend of Avalon, which she loved.  None of the games I had on my shelf seemed appropriate to play (Skyrim, the Batman: Arkham trilogy, Final Fantasy, the Uncharted trilogy, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Legends of Wrestlemania, etc. I finally stumbled upon a free download of retro-looking game called Jetpack Joyride.  Let me tell you, it's fun and addictive!

It's simple, one-touch system was welcome in this day and age when controllers have multiple buttons and joysticks. The simplicity didn't detract from the excellent gameplay, which never grew boring nor repetitive.

The look and feel of the game reminded me of those classic side-scrolling runner games of yesteryear like Pitfall, Super Mario Bros., and Sonic the Hedgehog, and it's just loaded with creativity and plain old fun.

Play it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Golden Age of TV or Gilded Age?

The New York Times had a fascinating post-Emmy-Awards article in Tuesday's paper in which the writer Alessandra Stanley eloquently ponders whether we are witnessing a "Gilded Age of Television." We've heard the phrase "Golden Age" bandied about, as some critics and the general public argue that we are living through a time of TV excellence that may have started with HBO's The Sopranos.  While the debate rages about whether or not the shows we're seeing are indeed better than the best of the past (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Roots, Jesus of Nazareth, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, etc.), Stanley shifts the discourse to a more profound issue -- are only the elite enjoying today's exceptional programming? With most of the award-winning series airing on pay services, are too many people shut out from watching the best of the best? Is it unfair that only those who can afford to pay the subscription fees for premium channels and streaming services can enjoy Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, and all the rest?

At first I thought, wait a minute, the film industry is a paid admission system, and it's managed to attract the masses. Hollywood could take chances on the big screen that broadcast television couldn't, and it was a model that cable and satellite TV have followed well, adding more edgy content, pushing plotpoints to the edge, enabling them to explore more complex characters and storylines behind the otherwise gratuitous sex and violence. The public could pick and choose what it wanted to see in movie theaters, while traditional TV depended on passive audiences with a limited amount of options, glued to their sets, watching formulaic, cookie-cutter scenarios. Even though arthouse cinema existed, movies were always thought of as escapist fare for millions, even during its own "Golden Ages." Now TV, unbound from the shackles of network censors and broadcast timidity, can tell stories with depth, can show character arcs for the ages, can produce series that are like the finest literary novels, taking the electronic medium to new heights. If such shows contain nudity, gruesome images, vulgar words, shocking situations, the public is choosing with their own wallets to watch. Broadcast standards are not being infringed, no one is sending unwanted smut and junk into viewers homes unwanted. In fact, those who can afford it are paying to see such content.

The comparison with film is flawed, however, since most of these television services are bundled.  There is no a la cart option in cable television -- subscribers are forced to pay for packages of channels, whether they want all of them or not, in order for them to view the handful or slightly more of channels they truly want.  Even services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc. have overhanging subscription fees (even if they are cheaper than most cable bills). I've argued before that there really is no such thing anymore as free TV.  With movies, the masses pick and choose which films to go see. With TV, audiences pay a big price to see everything they want, and even then there is so much content, it's almost impossible to view it all.

Are things better now than they were when networks were making fortunes from selling advertisers the eyeballs of multiple millions of captive viewers? Is it bad that only a handful of millions have the financial means to legally watch True Detective, Fargo, Orphan Black, and many other shows that those in the know rave about as the height of storytelling in the history of TV (or even other entertainment media)?

Public Television was created to counter commercial interests in broadcasting. People can still view Downton Abbey for free on PBS, if the other shows on ABC, NBC, CBS, the CW, and FOX don't meet their highbrow standards. Those who want to see House of Cards, Veep, Mad Men, The Americans, or The Walking Dead for free are out of luck, however.    

Monday, August 25, 2014

Playing Multiple Characters on the Same Show

A conversation on Facebook today about a casting call that asked that those who've worked on the show before not apply started me thinking about the long list of examples of actors who have been cast in different roles in the same television series. I'm not talking about shows like Orphan Black, in which multiple versions of the same person are integral to the plot, or the gimmick of having the same actor portray different characters in the same episode (or movie, like Peter Sellers or Eddie Murphy have done a number of times.) I'm talking about actors and actresses who played one role and then were hired back in the same show to play a completely different character.  You'd be surprised how many times it's happened.

Deadwood -- The gritty HBO Western cast Garrett Dillahunt as both Jack McCall, the drunk who killed Wild Bill Hickock and volatile geologist Francis Wolcott. It's a testament to Dillahunt's great acting chops that each portrayal is perfectly distinct that it's not a distraction.

Everybody Loves Raymond -- Kevin James played a recurring role early in the sitcom as Kevin Daniels, a friend of Raymond, and later appeared in cross-over episodes as Doug Heffernan, the character he made famous in King of Queens.

Hill Street Blues -- Dennis Franz played corrupt cop Sal Benedetto, a critically acclaimed performance, and then returned as Lt. Norman Buntz, leading to a short-lived spin-off titled Beverly Hills Buntz.

Law & Order -- Every actor in New York worked on this show and its spin-offs (including me as a background extra). It was a streamlined factory system of casting and shooting, and it's stunning how many actors came back to play multiple roles. The Web site Repeat Offenders File chronicles the ridiculous number of times it happened. The most amazing example was Jerry Orbach, who first played defense attorney Frank Lehrman, and then returned to become one of the stars of the show, Lennie Briscoe.

Married...With Children -- Another example of a show's top stars who started out in another supporting role earlier in the series is Ted McGinley who first appeared as an alternate universe Al Bundy named Norman Jablonsky before he was cast as Jefferson D'Arcy.

M*A*S*H -- Did you know that before Harry Morgan played the memorable role of Col. Potter, he appeared on the show as a crazy general Bartford Hamilton Steele.

Star Trek -- A bunch of people played multiple roles on this science fiction franchise over the years. Majel Barrett-Roddenberry was the second in command Number One in the original pilot "The Cage" (which was edited into the episode "The Menagerie") and more famously as Nurse Christine Chapel. In the sequel series Star Trek: The Next Generation, she was cast as Lwaxana Troi.  She also provided the voice of the ship's Computer and voices for other characters in Star Trek: The Animated Series.  There's also Mark Lenard, who played a Romulan Commander in the classic episode "Balance of Terror" and Spock's father Sarek a number of times. He also appeared as a Klingon commander briefly in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. My favorite is Diana Muldaur, who played three distinct and prominent roles in the franchise -- Dr. Ann Mulhall in "Return to Tomorrow," Dr. Miranda Jones in "Is There in Truth No Beauty," and Dr. Pulaski in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Finally, how can we forget William Campbell who starred as Trelane in "The Squire of Gothos" and the Klingon Koloth in "The Trouble with Tribbles."

Three's Company -- Jeffrey Tambor played a bunch of different parts in this series -- rich man Winston Cromwell III, psychiatrist Dr. Tom Miller, and crazy dentist Dr. Phillip Greene. Of course, he also went on to star in the short-lived spin-off series The Ropers as Jeffrey P. Brookes III.

Seeing all these examples, I almost wonder if there's a shortage of actors out there, so casting directors have to dip in the same pool over and over again.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Thoughts After Watching Cement Heads

I was alone with my baby boy today while my wife and daughter went to visit my mother-in-law.  When he was taking his nap for a few hours, I turned on the TV and started flipping the channels, something I rarely do anymore -- usually I'm just watching children's programming on NickJr with my five-year-old or catching up with my wife on shows we've DVRed. I landed on a reality show on A&E called Cement Heads. It caught my eye because the "characters" were funny and the setting was my dear old New York.  I felt a pang of guilt for enjoying it as much as I did -- another show to add to my embarrassing list of reality programming that actually entertains me. It started me thinking, however, about the current state of entertainment with its focus on "non-scripted" series.

A&E started off as the Arts & Entertainment Network.  Now its airtime schedule is loaded with shows like Duck Dynasty, Wahlburgers, Storage Wars, Epic Ink, and Brandi & Jarrod: Married to the Job. Maybe the network simplified its name not just because it was a convenient shorthand, but because it was proving to be a hassle to justify these types of shows as "art." That's an easy joke to make, but it does a disservice to the editors, videographers, and yes, the "talent" who work many hours to make these series entertaining enough for the masses to watch (and most importantly come back for more). A&E isn't the only one earning big bucks from this type of programming.

Still, it's a different media world now, when writers are less necessary than creative show-runners who can find a way to present almost any footage they've shot in an often exciting and engaging way. It's not truly "reality," but then again is any documentary really anything more than captured bits of life framed from the perspective of those doing the filming? Set up a camera, record what happens, and then make a story out of it in post-production. That's the business-model now.

Cement Heads follows the shenanigans of a family-run construction business. The only thing that makes this worthy of our attention, that made me stop channel-surfing, was the personalities on the screen. It was as if these men and women I was seeing were right out of central casting -- not that they had any movie star aura, but because they lacked it. They seemed like people I would run into in my daily encounters (not the polished, often fake-looking celebrities we see too often on TV, film, and stage nowadays), and yet at the same time they were also close enough to fictional characters to make me feel as if I was watching a "show" instead of being a voyeur in someone's personal life.

That seems like a contradiction, but it's what makes reality shows work -- the "casting" is key for shows like Big Brother, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Hell's Kitchen, etc. Audiences connect to these shows if the people on them are dramatic and hook us, whether as villains or as folks to whom we can relate and root to overcome the odds. Watching the first two episodes of Cement Heads (titled "The Big Bid" and "Chubby's Meatballs"), it was as if I were watching a sitcom like Everybody Loves Raymond. The dynamics of the "plot" and the chemistry among Billy the Boss, his wife Danielle, his parents Sarge and Joan, and his right-hand man the hilarious Joe "Chubby" Luciano, had me laughing out loud and wanting to see more (despite my better judgment).

Will I tune in for more? Who knows? The TV landscape is littered with so much content, who can keep up with it all? Nevertheless, networks have discovered the formula for reality programming, and the ratings are proving that these shows are somehow tapping an emotional nerve with audiences.  Cement Heads (and reality shows like it) are no worse and often better than the forced dramas and comedies of scripted series that the networks still churn out every season.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Daughter's First Yankees Game = Priceless

I took my daughter to her first baseball game on Saturday and it was truly an almost perfect experience.  I want to thank the New York Yankees and Mastercard Priceless NY for making this a day that my family will never forget.

It was Joe Torre Day and it was a thrill to see him honored and his number retired. How exciting to see Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Ron "Louisiana Lightning" Guidry, so many fantastic players from those championship seasons under Torre's leadership! It was "almost perfect" because Derek Jeter wasn't in the game's starting lineup to our disappointment, but we were still delighted to see him during the pre-game ceremony. He's giving me so many great memories as a Yankees fan that I'm glad my daughter had the chance to see him, however briefly, on this incredible day.

My daughter Tori received a "1st Game" certificate and a baseball from batting practice. Our seats were amazing and we had access to the excellent DKNY Lounge. I have to say, as much as I miss the old stadium, I'm starting to love the new Yankee Stadium.

Before I put my daughter to bed, clutching a pinstripe-clad Hello Kitty doll that my wife bought for her, I showed her a bat that I still had from my very first Yankee game that my dad took us to when I was a kid. It was a give-away day and I still cherish that bat. I wonder if my daughter will hold on to her keepsake baseball and look at it fondly over the years, remembering this day.

I think a life-long Yankees baseball fan was born today.