Sunday, February 25, 2007

Wordplay & The Aristocrats

I just now saw Wordplay but The Aristocrats about a year and a half ago when it was first released and haven't written about it until this post. The reason I'm combining them is that they share the same flaw of almost no historical curiousity and both could have benefitted greatly from the help of a real journalist. For The Aristocrats this is a serious but not crippling flaw but it nearly sinks Wordplay.

Start with the more interesting film. By now anybody reading this will know what The Aristocrats (Paul Provenza 2005) is about but what seemed so odd to me is that there are a few references to the origin of the joke and some urban-legend-ish stories about it but almost nothing concrete. Interviewees mention a few times that it originated in vaudeville which is clearly wrong; there's absolutely no way the joke as it currently exists was used in vaudeville and probably not even in burlesque. There is a possibility that it was a vaudeville joke with a different center section but whether or not that's the case nothing in the film shows that the slightest attempt was made to research this. There are vaudeville historians, books and even people with long memories but none are consulted. I find it just as easy to believe somebody in the 50s made up this joke and then claimed it was from a few decades earlier. For instance, Phyllis Diller mentions the first time she heard the joke and the obvious questions are when? Who told it? Where? Do you remember how it went? What was the second time she heard it? The film just presents some rumors, a few of which--such as Michael O'Donogue telling it for a full hour--are clearly lies. Similar lack of documentation with the story that the joke was commonly told only among other comedians and not in public. Again, there's little to support this even though most reviewers accepted it as fact. There are reports (not in the film) that Buddy Hackett told it during a public performance in the late 50s and also several years later during a commercial while taping The Tonight Show. I don't know whether these are actually true or not but are certainly plausible enough that this should have been addressed.

A problem that cuts closer to even what the film is actually trying to do is that the joke is presented intact so few times. There's a lot of talk about this being like jazz where different comics improvise in their own styles on set changes so there should be much more presentation of that. Instead there is a composite telling, a few more or less straight renditions and then some eccentric or unusual takes (mime, cards, reversals, etc). Hiding comic invention is not the best way to celebrate it. There are also some odd choices. The Onion staff has no business being in here and are just embarassing. Chris Rock clearly was chosen only for marquee value since he contributes nothing to the film. A few others seem chosen just because they're filmmakers' buddies.

Wordplay (Patrick Creadon 2006) is like a Sunday newspaper feature that's amusing but leaves little lasting mark. Creadon and co-writer/producer Christine O'Malley seem more fascinated by the celebrities they've hooked and the mostly uninsightful remarks from the other crossword fans than any serious or even quasi-serious exploration of crosswords. Admittedly the celebs are mostly pretty solid with Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton being good interviewees (while the Indigo Girls really need to fade away so we don't have to put up with them any more) and the non-celebs fairly personable. Daniel Okrent, though, is the one that should have been given far more screen time. He has the most insights and the least fluff of perhaps anybody on screen. He's the one that claims musicians and accountants/number people do the best because they're trained at recognizing patterns, which whether strictly true or not does point at something ignored otherwise in Wordplay. That's the idea that solving crosswords is somehow related to intelligence. Sure it does take some smarts and at least a basic education but more important are crossword experience and such factors as this pattern recognition. At least they didn't bring up the old idea that crosswords increase vocabulary which can be easily disproven. As dubious as I am of expert opinion in documentaries this one could have used a little bit of the context they could provide about puzzle solving in general or language use or even obsessions. (My guess is Creadon & Co wanted solvers to be normalized and not freak show material.)

But that's where the lack of historical or almost any other perspective comes in. There's some mention of the NYT's first crosswords editor and how she made them popular but that's about it. Who actually invented them? Were they popular everywhere or just New York? How popular? What were some sample clues from that time? How have they changed over time? But then the film is so exclusively about the NYT that it wouldn't be surprising if the Times funded it as a promotional tool. There's also no mention made of British-style crosswords or if there are other varieties. And little about the mechanics. How are puzzles solved? Do people memorize words like Scrabble players do? What exactly makes for the different difficulty levels? What about people who can't complete them in a few minutes? What do they get out of these? These latter solvers are the ones that would make the bulk of the readership but I don't think a single one is interviewed and except for letters to the editor go mostly unrepresented. One of the best segments is actually in the DVD's deleted scenes which is a handful of puzzle creators describing specific puzzles. This is fascinating nuts-n-bolts stuff even though I'm still curious about the finish of constructing a puzzle: Anybody can do the opening but what does it take to make it really work. Another of the best sections is when we see the start of a puzzle being constructed then a montage of the various interviewees solving that same puzzle.

This leads into the worst decision in the film: the tournament. I'm sure if you asked Creadon & Co. they would say they were lucky to have such an event to tie it together but really this is a very undramatic tournament and not simply because it's not visual. There are no playoffs (anybody can enter), there's no training and it seems too reliant on luck. In other words, just not very competitive at least for people outside the event and while it's easy to feel that the winner of the Scrabble tournaments is one of the best players in the game these crossword contestants just seem like people who had the spare time to head to the tournament. But there's something American about preferring to watch horse races than thinking; after all that's how elections are now covered and even something like weekly film box office rankings when in fact there's no real competition (since only a handful of films have even a remote chance at the top spots). Wordplay ends up more or less as a first half of interesting fluff and a second half of seriously tedious tournament coverage.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Marvel's Civil War

I was going to write about Civil War next week when the last issue of Front Line appears but the whole thing ended up so silly that I couldn't wait. Because after everything that's happened, after the big ideological debates (more below), after all the bad blood, the deaths, the damage, the flagrant violation of the Constitution (looking at you there Mr. Iron Man), well let's see…. Captain America just quits. Yep, that's right, just quits. I think this can be seen two ways. Either Millar & McNiven (plus their editors) had an idea for the ending they were too clumsy to pull off or they're just too incompetent to have been allowed near a project like this. Let's just ignore the fact that Cap is a WW2 veteran and would have known perfectly well that collateral damage is inevitable. Even in that case there's no build-up (possibly going back a couple of issues) or emphasis on just how much damage (which really just looks like any other superhero rampage). Cap just screams at civilians holding him, looks up and then decides to quit. Can anybody spell "anti-climatic"? And if it was such an obvious decision then shouldn't many on his side agreed instead of, let's count, NONE of them? Oh, and then we have Reed's exposition letter to Sue (which really should send her straight to the arms of Namor) that doesn't really explain much. Did the heroes that given amnesty still have to sign up for the Act? I would guess so but that seems quite odd. After all this nothing seems quite resolved. Just what was the point of the cheesy, out-of-place Reed-Peter dialogue "Amazing"/"Spectacular"? Or the deux ex imperius appearance of Namor, which would be completely unexplained if you hadn't been following the tie-ins? How did Ben suddenly appear in just the right city block halfway around the world from where he was last seen? And why bring Clor back? Just bad writing all around. (For a funny synopsis check out Civil War in 30 Seconds at There doesn't seem to be a permalink but it's for Feb 21.)

There's a saying that's more clever in its original form but goes something like: Most stories have two sides and in a melodrama one side is right but in a drama both are. The original promotions and interviews for Civil War promised the drama, that idea that both sides would be right. It would have been a tricky approach since if superheroes actually existed in any kind of real-life world there would certainly be something like the Registration Act, if not quite so heavily governmental then at least something resembling deputies or tighter legal controls. But 60+ years of superhero comics have created the opposite thinking and while it works fine for those stories if there's going to be any genuine balancing of the two approaches then there will need to be more emphasis on how reasonable registration is (whether or not this particular form). As it happened Marvel never really pursued that. By the infamous issue 4 the pro-registration side were already the bad guys. I've still never seen any decent explanation about the new Thunderbolts which still seems hideously out of character for pretty much everybody (even though Ellis' series is off to a good start on its own terms).

As it turned out this must be the first big crossover where all the really interesting stuff appeared in the tie-ins and the main series was more or less botched. Front Line has been pretty solid even if issue 10 was mostly filler. Tie-ins at New Avengers (especially the Luke Cage issue), the Spider-Man books, Black Panther, Captain America and some others have generally had the real conflict and power that Civil War itself doesn't. An exception is probably Fantastic Four which never satisfactorily explained Reed supporting registration (this is the guy who a couple of years ago invaded a foreign country, ignored all U.S. government responses and nearly started an international war). This series just felt like the writers wanted to split the Four and just did it arbitrarily, not having any good way otherwise.

Something that nobody will care about in a few years is how Marvel also really fumbled the production. Yesterday, the owner of my comics store pointed out that this had been seven issues in eleven months and by its nature delayed several other series, most notably the Spider-Man books (he said there had been nine ASM issues in the past year). In other words, Marvel's inability to keep to schedule--and this is hardly the only such book--directly impacted stores' finances. The main response from Marvel has mainly been that McNiven should be given the opportunity to keep the series consistent but really even the story would benefit from having been done on time instead of greatly drawn out.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

24 S6 E10

Well I never planned on writing a 24 blog but sometimes you just have to roll with the, uh, lemonade. Or something. In any case, after flopping around most of the season the show got better and worse. The good part is that we may now start to see the conspiracies within conspiracies that's been fun in the past. The bad part is almost everything else. The Morris guilt subplot is appropriate and has potential but it's really dragging and becoming increasingly implausible (even for a show that thrives on implausibility). Too bad because the actor is one of the best ones on the show; not saying much admittedly but he could really run if they only gave him the material. My guess is that they're setting up Morris for a redemptive death towards the end. And why would pragmatic Jack decide to go after his dad alone? Well he claimed "it's personal" and half the viewers choked on the idea that the writers would think anybody could get away with that phrase and not spark laughter. It's personal? Is this some direct-to-video C-movie? And then Jack unburdens his heart ("I just had to go my own way") while Executioner Dad inexplicably slinks away. I kinda hope Dad has decided to be some kind of triple-agent and actually help Jack from the shadows while atoning for his crimes. Somehow I'm sure that's not the case and this too will remain more or less random. Hey, at least I called it right about the Ally McBeal guy having second thoughts about the assassination. That whole line is dragging as well. This being 24 the president could easily go up in a bomb and given this president most of us are probably rooting for that; whatever you wanna say about Powers Boothe you know he's got more whistles blowing and balls juggling even if we have so far barely met his character.

What's really pulling the show down is the leaden dialogue, not even fun enough to be ludicrous. This is a show that's rarely cared about much beyond getting from A to B to C but the dialogue has moved from servicable to so clunky it throws you out of the show. Not just the "it's personal" or the pre-death speech. Morris and Chloe don't even sound like human beings let alone people who'd been married for years. Ally McBeal guy gets suckered by a boilerplate "I value your opinion" (which of course usually means exactly the opposite). If this is the best--or even cruising on automatic--the writers can do it's definitely a good thing they never followed through on the promise that this season would be about Jack rebuilding himself from A Dark Place. It's clear that these people are simply incapable of writing that.

Oh, I did like that most of the stuff from last week's previews were covered in the first few minutes so we don't spend all hour for a surprise we already knew.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

24 S6 E8&9

Well, a double header this past Monday. Don't know if they (the mysterious "they") knew that episode 9 was a little weak and wanted to buttress it or if they're preparing for a break in the run. (If I remember right there's a gap of a few weeks each season during some kind of playoffs or maybe I don't remember right. This is the first season I've watched as it aired except for the very first episode ever and I was so disappointed that they clearly lied about it being a show in real time that I didn't watch any more.)

Episode 8 was the kind of twisty, double-crossing, outscheming hour that's always worthwhile. The follow-up mostly coasted as it seemed to set up the Next Big Surprise. Just what are the Russians up to? When will Jack learn about his dad? (Well the preview answered the latter.) Did good ole Dad mastermind what the Russians are up to? Did he mastermind last season? Maybe he's masterminded all six seasons in an attempt to teach his son that the world is a tough place. Hey, it'd be more convincing than the "save my company" stuff he keeps spouting.

There's still too much déjà vu. Another plot point is left open because somebody doesn't just punch Jack and say "You HAVE to listen" - first Curtis did that and now Marilyn. Another attempt to remove a Palmer president (Season Two) and possibly even by assassination (Season One). Of course by now Wayne has turned out to be the least convincing president in screen history and most of us want him gone even if we otherwise agree with him. In any case this plot thread needs to be resolved really fast but looks like it's going to drag out several more episodes. I'm expecting the Ally McBeal Guy (though I never saw that show; mainly remember him from Ghostbusters II) to have a crisis of conscience and decide he really can't kill a president. With any luck this will take about five minutes but we probably won't be lucky.

Then we have another CTU office person sent out to the field, this time Milo. Buchanan claims the team may need a tech to read a hard drive (like 80% of their office couldn't do that) but what he really meant was "We need another secondary character to endanger." Unlike Edgar, though, nobody will care what happens to Milo. Morris was something else though he seemed to cave pretty quickly. Yeah yeah, being tortured with a power drill can't be pleasant but c'mon would it really have caused a trained counter-terrorist agent--even office staff--to agree to murder tens of thousands of people? Heck, less than an hour later he's out and about with seemingly no serious harm. Maybe he's another traitor; that's almost a CTU hiring requirement.

It's also interesting that Fayed could make a phone call somewhere out in the greater LA area and a few minutes later a recording is being analyzed by CTU but Jack's dad makes a call from within CTU saying "kill him" and nobody notices. Of course CTU doesn't have a problem letting all these unauthorized people walk around what surely is a top secret facility without the slightest supervision. Didn't they learn anything from the crazed woman in Season Three? And even if you want to think that the call was somehow encrypted (like Fayed wouldn't have done that either) then the call a bit later threatening Marilyn couldn't have been.

Interesting that when Jack talks with his dad he says there are four bombs still loose. Writing/editing error or is he suspicious of dad and trying to arrange a trap?

Sunday, February 11, 2007


* I rarely listen to morning DJs but when the Oscars were announced I wanted to hear on my way to work. This show's host does a gossip/news (well really "news") piece every day so this one was about the nominations. She went through the big awards, talking about what was expected and what were not. Then she got to the Best Foreign-Language Film. After going through these she then talked about how many people were surprised that Apocalypto and Letters from Iwo Jima weren't nominated and then compounded the error by describing these surprises in some detail. Now this host used to be a CNN anchor so I expected some minimal journalist integrity (even though anchors aren't real journalists; they're best summed up by the British term "newsreaders"). Instead she just showed that she was making much of this up or at the very least using ill-informed friends as sources. I emailed of course pointing out that it was impossible for either of those two films to be nominated considering that they hadn't been submitted for the award and were anyway US productions and therefore ineligible. Naturally no reply.

* One of my late-blooming guilty pleasures is watching football. Not like most people watch undoubtedly because I have zero interest in who wins and frequently couldn't even tell you who was playing in a game I had on at that moment. It's the whole strategy thing I think. Anyway, during a recent game one of the announcers started talking about how complicated one of the coaches contract situation was and that untangling it would be a "Herculean task." This prompted one of the others--probably either Howie Long or Terry Bradshaw--to say that he knows about Hercules from cartoons and movies and that is really strong. Now apart from the cartoons and movies bit which is really about all we'd expect, it was a bit embarassing that he completely had no idea what the reference was really about.

* A local radio station (not the one above) has taken to running little segues into commercials, things along the lines of "It's time to pay our bills." They're moderately clever and the instinct to foreground the operations is laudable but in practice these instead bring so much attention to the fact that we now have to listen to commercials that the segues are backfiring. (Really "have to listen" isn't quite right; I usually just change the station.)

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

24 S6 E7

Well Dad turns out to be a Bad Guy after all. Too bad about Gray because the chemistry with Jack was turning into the most interesting part of the show so far. Now it won't be "can Gray outscheme Jack" but "when will Jack find out about Dad?" Then there'll be some recriminations, explanations, gnashing of teeth, all very emotional and quite tedious. I wanted more soap opera but good soap opera. Oh, and fascinating that CTU protocol to prepare a prisoner for transport involves leaving the "interrogation" equipment STILL HOOKED UP! It's not clear which is more painful: hearing some of this dialogue or feeling like you missed the important bits. Gray practically brags that he killed Palmer and Jack's friends, pulling Jack from hiding and eventually into the Chinese prison. And why? I saw last season only three or four months ago and by now am not sure it makes sense. For a show that makes a point of having characters recap plot elements ("We need to hurry because, you know, a nuclear bomb went off in Ventura.") sometimes the big stuff just passes right by.

Much of the episode turned out to be repeats. Fayed's phone call is made before a commercial break then played almost in its entirety afterwards. Jack tortures the brother in his own house. Again. Relative of CTU agent caught in terrorist attack. Again (even if it turns out to not be true). One of the Palmer brothers states his principles. Again. Actually by now Palmer is getting a bit annoying. Does he always have to speak in big, abstract statements? Hard to tell how much is intended to be his character and how much is just the clumsy writers; I'm guessing more the latter and they think they're actually making an important statement. By this point you'd almost welcome a coup like in Season Two. Or anything that gives Palmer some complexity. Same for his sister.

And I don't care a whole lot about "reality" in a show like this but can't help but think that L.A. seems awful calm considering that a nuclear bomb just went off. The blackout after the EMP blast in an earlier season was much more convincing but then again at night the special effects are easier. And Morris? A computer hacker who's also a nuclear physicist? Well OK I'm sure that's overstating it, maybe systems analyst who's also a nuclear engineer, but er what? A career change? Hobby? Even though it's the bad guy go-between's job it's convenient he knew Morris' background, where he would be at noon and what car he drives. CTU must be the least secure secret security facility in the world.

Remember when we were told this season would be about Jack starting from his darkest moment and regaining his confidence? Or that it would be a chase after Jack? Or that it would be more damage control than preventing attacks? So far barely true about any of these. Again hard to tell if the writers think they're actually doing the above or if they just talked a good game but fell back into familiar 24 style.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Recent TCM reviews

Classic Comedy Teams

We're Going to Eat You

East German Westerns

The Martin & Lewis Collection

The Jayne Mansfield Collection

Not much to add, really. The Mansfield box should actually be called a Tashlin set but despite seeing a Val Lewton collection how likely is a Tashlin box? There's a Sirk box in England but apparently no plans for a US equivalent. The East German Westerns were a disappointment. From what I'd heard (not much admittedly) these were aggressive propaganda films but that turned out to not really be true. As mentioned in the review Hollywood itself had already made more politically radical Westerns. The East German ones are mildly interesting but nothing to make any effort to see. We're Going to Eat You should have received a better transfer and some kind of extra like notes. Then again this used to be a hard film to find. For the comedy teams set I would never consider the Three Stooges "classic" but certainly not in those two selections. There's a truly abysmal B-Western and a bit wilder pre-Code comedy that's not exactly "good" but kept me entertained. The Abbott & Costello films are actually decent, especially considering that the duo was so lax that they barely made any films that are good all the way through. The two Laurel & Hardy have some charm that's made me go rent some of their early work even though the actual films are otherwise pretty bland. I used to think L&H were greatly overrated but am now thinking I missed the point. Findings will be reported later. And the Martin & Lewis box is quite good once you get past the tedious first three films. A second box should be even better since it has, yes, their Tashlin work.

Are comics art?

In Time Richard Corliss says yes and maybe a little no. Too bad he makes a couple of mistakes that also went right past the fact-checkers. For one, the first black superhero wasn't Luke Cage but the Black Panther (or possibly a couple of very obscure precedents). But there are two errors when Corliss says "Stan Lee dreamed up and wrote the Spider-Man stories, while Jack Kirby illustrated them...." Well it was Steve Ditko, not Kirby drawing Spider-Man. And it shows a complete ignorance of the Marvel method of writing where yes Lee did "write" the Fantastic Four and Kirby did "illustrate" them but the actual story was very much both their work.