Tag Archives: On Pop Culture

Video pirates beware!

By Dennis Hartley

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Just because Blockbuster and Hollywood Video are kaput, don’t think that you are off the hook. You scofflaws know who you are:

A North Carolina man faces a court date after a bizarre arrest for not returning a 15-year-old VHS rental, but he may receive a little help from the movie’s star.

James Meyers said he was pulled over on Tuesday morning for a broken taillight, but later learned that there was a warrant out for his arrest because he had not returned a copy of “Freddy Got Fingered” he rented in late 2001.

The 37-year-old single dad told the Daily News that cops allowed him to continue driving his daughter to school, but was later handcuffed and taken into custody when he met up with police that afternoon.

Luckily for him, this lawless ne’er-do-well has a guardian angel:

[Tom] Green, who is currently on a stand-up comedy tour in Australia, told the Daily News that he is happy to support fans of his film, which was the subject of terrible reviews and currently has an 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The 44-year-old comedian, who said that Rotten Tomatoes is “in the business of hating on art,” said that he could put in a good word with the court or even help out financially as long as the outcome doesn’t involve an outrageous sum.

Goddam movie critics. Always hating on art. Insufferable snobs.

Apparently, this has happened before, back in 2014:

Kayla Finley, 27, had visited a police station to report a crime, only to find a warrant for her arrest had been issued in 2005, when she was 18.

Ms Finley had rented a VHS copy of romantic comedy Monster In Law, starring Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda.

According to local television station Fox Carolina, Ms Finley was “shocked and disgusted” at the arrest.

Police said several warning letters about the overdue video were sent to Ms Finley, but she had since changed address.

[…]

Monster In Law, released in 2005 and directed by Robert Luketic, was mostly panned by critics.

So there are 3 lessons we have learned today:

  1.  If the technology is obsolete, it’s probably overdue.
  2.  Critics are always hating on art.
  3.  Freddy Got Fingered  and Monster In Law are obviously art.

Class dismissed.

Everybody gets a trophy (not)

By Dennis Hartley

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Well, we got through the Oscar telecast last night, and the world is still here. Yes it was awkward (I had to disable my Liberal Guilt Chip before tuning in), but it’s part of my duties as an alleged movie critic.

Thank god for Chris Rock, who found the sweet spot between acknowledging the elephant in the room and keeping everything moving along. He doled out some shaming on the Academy (as there  should have been), but Rock is such a pro that everyone was too busy laughing to be taken aback; and when he made a direct statement about affording people of color more opportunities in Hollywood, it was refreshingly devoid of sanctimony or grandstanding.

I dug Leo’s stump on global warming  (anything that makes the deniers twitch is OK in my book) but the most eloquent moment of the night was Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s acceptance speech for winning Best Documentary Short.  Of course, now I’ll have to face my own shaming for admitting that I haven’t had a chance to see any of the Best Documentary Short nominees (bad critic! bad! bad!).  However, I did manage to see and review the other shorts nominees.

I don’t normally “root” for one movie or the other, but I have to say that I was pulling for When Marnie Was There (my review), which lost to Pixar’s Inside Out for Best Animated Feature  I expected a little love for Studio Ghibli,  especially since this wonderful film  is purported to be the swan song for anime master Hayao Miyazaki.

But you can’t have everything. Hey…is there a trophy for that?

BTW your thoughts on the Oscars are welcome (be civil)…

What’s on your DVR?

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 9, 2016)

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Years ago, in days of old (when magic filled the air)…before the interwebs (or cable, even), we ancient folk suffered a kind of post-holiday, affective disorder called “mid-season blues”. Granted, one could say the very concept of television “seasons” has become moot, with a growing wave of cable subscribers (350,000 in Q3 of last year), who have “cut the cord” and opted for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, etc. etc.

But there remain some of us who still subscribe (literally) to the Old Ways. I don’t know, perhaps it’s that tactile sensation of brandishing a remote. Or maybe it’s the warm, special feeling I get when I receive my monthly Xfinity “Triple Play” bill of $244, which not only gives me access to the interwebs and 200 channels (out of which I only watch about 15 with any regularity), but provides me with a good ol’ reliable land line, which keeps me up-to-date on all the latest phone scams (“Hello! I’m calling from Microsoft.”).

If you dig around enough, you can still find some worthwhile teevee for your viewing pleasure. It does take some work, because you have to be willing to hold your nose and sift through a load of offal (read: reality TV programming) to unearth the odd gem. So for anyone who cares, here is my current top 10 list of “must see TV”, in alphabetical order:

Decades (Decades) – Now that the “History” Channel (home to the likes of Pawn Stars, Ancient Aliens, and erm, Swamp People) appears hell bent on covering anything but, history buffs have to do a little detective work in order to get their fix. This daily news magazine, the flagship show for the Decades channel, is right in the wheelhouse. Hosted by Bill Curtis, the show employs the venerable “this day in history” formula, utilizing clips from the news vaults of parent company CBS. “And that’s the way it is…”

The Director’s Chair (El Rey Network) – Robert Rodriguez goes one-on-one with fellow directors, Charlie Rose style. Not unlike David Steinberg’s excellent Showtime series Inside Comedy, the peer-to-peer shop talk approach yields conversations that are candid, insightful, and enlightening. Guests have included John Carpenter, Michael Mann, Francis Ford Coppola, George Miller, and some buddy of his named Quentin something.

Fargo (FX) – I confess being late to this party; I passed on Season 1 because I have a block against shows spun from films (personal problem). I had so many friends lobbying me to check out Season 2 that I finally binge-watched all 13 hours, to get them off my back. Imagine my surprise once I discovered how extraordinarily good the show is. The Coen’s involvement is minimal, but their thumbprints are all over it: arch, darkly funny heartland noir, smartly written, marvelously acted and tightly directed. Kirsten Dunst and Patrick Wilson are both up for possible Golden Globes tomorrow night, and rightfully so.

Humans (AMC) – What this UK-produced sci-fi drama series may lack in originality (it’s the umpteenth riff on Ray Bradbury’s short story, I Sing the Body Electric and/or Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is more than made up for by its dynamic execution. Currently on hiatus (AMC has confirmed a second season for 2016), the narrative centers on how the addition of a servile “synth” (your basic drop-dead gorgeous android) to the household affects the dynamics of an already dysfunctional upper middle-class family. While the android is allegedly factory fresh, there are hints that “she” may have a complicated past, which introduces conspiracy thriller elements to the tale. Uniformly well-acted, but the most compelling performance is by Gemma Chan as the family’s synth. The series was adapted from the Swedish TV drama Real Humans.

Independent Lens / P.O.V. (PBS) – I’m consolidating this pair of curated series because they are, in a fashion, two parts of a whole. Both provide a fabulous showcase for indie nonfiction films (representing a truly democratic diversity of voices and topics) that may not be otherwise accessible to a broad audience (on “free” TV, no less!). I’ve noticed that many of the better documentaries I’ve covered at the Seattle International Film Festival find their way to PBS (getting distribution for a documentary can be a tough row to hoe).

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) – With no disrespect to Trevor Noah, who is doing a bang-up job with The Daily Show, what with Jon Stewart’s retirement and Stephen Colbert’s defection to the straight world, I’ve been going through satirical withdrawal. But thank the gods for HBO, and their wise decision to give John Oliver a platform for his pointed, gloriously demented take downs of hypocrisy in all of its guises.

 Live from Daryl’s House (Palladia) – Daryl Hall has had an eclectic career, stretching himself as an artist in ways that may surprise casual music fans who only think of him as one-half of one of the most successful pop music duos in chart history. His musical flexibility comes in handy in this multiple platform cable show (since 2011) and webcast (since 2007). It’s a simple concept; a guest artist joins Hall and his band at his rustic home/private studio in upstate New York for food, conversation and (of course) lots of jamming. What makes it fun is the vibe of intimacy and spontaneity (although you can tell from the incredible tightness of the arrangements that they’ve rehearsed all the numbers). Still, it gives you an enjoyable illusion of being a “fly on the wall” at the session. The guest roster has been quite varied, ranging from established classic rockers, soul, R&B, blues and pop artists to up and coming acts. Some personal favorite sessions: Todd Rundgren, Joe Walsh, Nick Lowe, Ben Folds, Rumer, Allen Stone, Grace Potter, Dave Stewart, Smokey Robinson, Toots & the Maytals…hell-(as they say) it’s all good!

 Maron (IFC) – Following in the footsteps of Seinfeld and Louis, comedian/podcast host Marc Maron plays a theatrically embroidered version of “himself” in this acerbically amusing look at what comedians “do” those remaining 23 hours a day when they are not on stage. Yes, it’s another show about “nothing”…but darker and more angst-ridden than the aforementioned, with a Saul Bellow vibe. But still funny. Very, very funny. Trust me.

Ray Donovan (Showtime) If you miss The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or Sons of Anarchy, this series should more than adequately fill that void in your life that cries out for a weekly “criminal thug as harried family guy” drama to really sink your teeth into. The Donovans are a clan of Boston Southies who have transplanted to sunny L.A. Liev Schreiber leads a fine cast as Ray, a Hollywood “fixer” (think George Clooney’s eponymous character in Michael Clayton, or Harvey Keitel’s “Mr. Wolf” in Pulp Fiction). Ray’s methods for making his wealthy clients’ problems “disappear” are discreet, but hardly legal. Of course, he does it all to support his family, who are dysfunctional at best. In fact, he spends just as much time making his own family’s problems disappear; especially those of his two brothers, and his father (Jon Voight, rarely better, as one of the most odious “bad dads” of all time). Can’t wait for Season 4.

Star Talk (National Geographic Channel) – Astrophysicist/head cheerleader for science Neil deGrasse Tyson continues his crusade against ignorance and superstition in America (yes, it’s still rampant…have you been following this election cycle?) with this lively, brain-stimulating talk show, which just wrapped up its second season. Far from a dry science lecture, Tyson infuses pop culture and humor into the mix; inviting a scientist and a standup comic to share the stage with him each week. In turn, this panel parses and adds color to Tyson’s in-depth, pre-taped interview with whoever that week’s special guest is. The guests hail from a wide spectrum of professions: actors, musicians, authors, entrepreneurs, politicians, film directors, astronauts. What I love about the show is how the conversation expands into all directions (art, music, religion, politics, history, philosophy, economics, etc.) yet always loops back to science, and the joy of discovery.

Back to the future with Roger and Gene

By Dennis Hartley

Apropos to the opening weekend of The Force Awakens, Chaz Ebert unearthed a fabulously entertaining vintage Nightline clip over at her blog that features a three way dust-up (quite civil, actually) between her late husband Roger, Gene Siskel and venerable New York-based critic John Simon. The year was 1983, the subject at hand was the original Star Wars trilogy. Return of the Jedi had recently opened, apparently prompting Simon to go on a tear reiterating his disdain for the franchise. He had famously lambasted the 1977 original, writing:

Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its highfalutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a “future” cast to them: Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science of any place or period.

I sense hostility.

Anyhoo…Ted Koppel was the moderator, John Simon played Darth Vader, and Roger and Gene stood in for Luke and Han. Check it out:

God, I miss Siskel & Ebert (I wrote a tribute a few years back). They may have not have always seen eye to eye, but as evidenced in the clip they could be a formidable tag team. I love the part where Simon champions Tender Mercies over Return of the Jedi as a film  he would take his (hypothetical) children to see. Tender Mercies is a great film, but if I wanted to treat my (hypothetical) kids to a Saturday matinee, I’d probably opt for the fun space western with the cute robots over the painterly character study about the, erm… recovering alcoholic .

But that’s just me.

The beginning of wisdom: What I learned from Mr. Spock

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 28, 2015)

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In my review of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise, I wrote:

 Gene Roddenberry’s universally beloved creation has become so ingrained into our pop culture and the collective subconscious of Boomers […] that the producers of the latest installment didn’t have to entitle it with a qualifier. It’s not Star Trek: Origins, or Star Trek: 2009. It’s just Star Trek. They could have just as well called it Free Beer, judging from the $80,000,000 it has rung up at the box office already.

This likely explains the prodigious outpouring of sentiment regarding Leonard Nimoy’s passing. And this is not emanating solely from the geekier sectors of the blogosphere, but from such bastions of traditional journalism as The New York Times, which duly noted:

His artistic pursuits — poetry, photography and music in addition to acting — ranged far beyond the United Federation of Planets, but it was as Mr. Spock that Mr. Nimoy became a folk hero, bringing to life one of the most indelible characters of the last half century: a cerebral, unflappable, pointy-eared Vulcan with a signature salute and blessing: “Live long and prosper”.

Of course, my “logical” half is well aware that this “unflappable, pointy-eared Vulcan” was a fictional creation, in reality a nice Jewish boy from Boston (“Lenny” to his friends) who was only playing a half-human, half-alien science officer on a silly sci-fi TV show. By all accounts, Nimoy was an engaging and generous human being, who devoted off-screen time to various progressive political and social causes. Fellow Star Trek alumnus  George Takei  offered touching insight on this aspect in an MSNBC interview earlier this week.

But back to the pointy-eared gentleman, an early and critical role model for me as a child. Keep in mind, at the time of the TV show’s initial run (1966), I was all of 10 years old. Also, note that I was kind of a weird 10 year-old. I wasn’t that keen on hanging out with kids my age; I always had an easier time relating to elders (my best friend at the time was 13). To me, children were silly, immature creatures; I generally found their behavior to be quite “illogical” (believe me…it took years to de-evolve into the silly man-child I am today; to quote Bob Dylan, “ I was much older then, I’m younger than that now”).

While many of my little friends thought he was the shit, cocky Captain Kirk never did it for me (I’ve always had an issue with authority figures, not to mention that whole alpha male thing). But I could relate to Mr. Spock. I think he appealed to my own sense of “otherness”. Also, like Mr. Spock, I’m a “halfsie” (my parents might as well have been from different planets-a Jewish girl from Brooklyn and a Protestant farm boy from Ohio).

But that’s my personal take. I think Spock’s mass appeal stems from a universal recognition of the inherent duality within us all. When it comes to love and war, the constant vacillation between our logical and emotional selves is the very definition of human nature, nest’-ce pas? This is best demonstrated by the very human Mr. Nimoy himself, who once decried “I am not Spock” in his eponymous 1975 autobiography, only to recant that, oh, wait… “I am Spock” with his follow-up memoir 20 years on. Perhaps he’d had time to ponder something his own character once said: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” And, as it does to us all, this one particular epiphany came tagging along with age, finally presenting itself in the fullness of time: We are all Spock.

I hope God has a sense of humor: R.I.P. Robin Williams

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2014)

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If there’s a comedy heaven, its headliner finally showed. But he won’t shut the fuck up.

In the introduction to my review of Where the Wild Things Are a few years ago, I wrote:

Why is “childish” such a dirty word, anyway? To paraphrase Robin Williams, what is wrong with retaining a bit of the “mondo bozo” to help keep your perspective? Wavy Gravy once gave similar advice: “Laughter is the valve on the pressure cooker of life. Either you laugh and suffer, or you got your beans or brains on the ceiling.” Basically (in the parlance of psycho-babble)…“stay in touch with your Inner Child”.

Earlier today, as I am sure you’ve heard, Robin Williams lost touch with his inner child. As Smokey sang, “…there’s some sad things known to man/But ain’t too much sadder than/ The tears of a clown/When there’s no one around.” As someone who used to work in stand-up comedy, I can attest that there’s something to that. A lot of comics are sad people. Humor is a self-defense mechanism for depressives. I can’t explain why, it just is.

There was a certainly lot of that manic quality on display in Williams’ stand-up work…in fact, we came to expect it from him; he was loved, lauded and lavished with lucre for acting out in public like an absolute fucking loon. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It was his genius. It’s just that we rarely stop to think that some of these comic prodigies (like Williams’ idol Jonathan Winters) really do have a screw loose sometimes. For those like Jonathan and Robin, it may be their curse…but they made it our blessing.

But back to the funny “ha-ha” part of this whole thing…the legacy. Can you imagine, if you added up all the people who ever fell out of their chairs watching him perform on stage, from the tiniest little comedy holes like The Holy City Zoo in San Francisco (where it sticks in my craw to this day that I would somehow keep “missing” him when I lived there in the early 80s… “Oh, man, you left at 10:30 last night? Shit, man, Robin dropped by and did a surprise set at 11!”) to the prestigious concert halls, and then throw in all the people who sat in their living rooms laughing their asses off at Mork and Mindy (and still do, in syndication), and then top it off with the millions who flocked to his movies (good or bad)…how much endorphin release would that add up to in megatons?

We’ll let the psychologists worry about why he did what he ended up doing to himself (if that is indeed the case; the whys and the wherefores are not definitive as of this writing). A close friend emailed me about it this evening, and he offered an insightful corollary with another cultural icon of note, beginning with this classic Hunter S. Thompson quote:

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back…

He went on to point out that “…that high that made (Robin and Hunter) feel that anything was possible has since rolled back…and the sad reality of our corporate controlled existence almost demands them stepping off…leaving the future to another generation to resolve.” (h/t to JBF). And they were both in their 60s. Jesus, I think I just got even more depressed. Let’s get back to the work. I will leave you with my favorite Williams scene. It’s from Terry Gilliam’s film, The Fisher King. It’s a perfect 4 minute showcase of everything Robin excelled at as an actor and comic. RIP.

DVD Reissue: Max Headroom ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2010)

Video killed the radio star

And then committed suicide

Doug Powell, “Empty Vee”

The original maven of the matrix has returned. The belated release of ABC-TV’s late 80s one-season wonder, Max Headroom on DVD has given sci-fi geeks a nice little lift from the midsummer doldrums (hey-why is everybody looking at me like I’m some kind of a nerd?).

In case you spent the 80s in a coma, or you’re too young to remember, “Max Headroom” was a fictional, computer-generated TV personality who was created via a blend of live-action camera, prosthetics and old-school animation techniques. First appearing in 1985 on Channel 4 in the U.K. as the host for a weekly, MTV-style music video/variety show, the hip, irreverent and oh-so-sardonic Max was indelibly brought to “life” by the comic improvisations of square-jawed Canadian actor Matt Frewer, backed by a bevy of hip writers (it’s like Robin Williams mind-melded with HAL 9000).

The original one-hour pilot that kicked off the British variety series in 1985 provided a back story for the character, and was quite an impressive production. An imaginative mash-up of Brazil, Network and The Parallax View, it is set in a dystopian metropolis some “20 minutes into the future” and concerns an investigative journalist (Frewer) who works for a media conglomerate called Network 23.

He is hot on the trail of his own employers, who have developed a secretive video technology that can deliver a huge cache of subliminal advertising to unwitting TV viewers in a matter of seconds; such a huge amount of information, in fact, that some people have an adverse physical reaction (OK, they explode-don’t worry, not a spoiler). A shadowy conspiracy thriller ensues. While fleeing would-be assassins, he runs smack into a parking gate arm (emblazoned with the warning “Max Headroom”). Soon thereafter, his memory and persona is “saved” and downloaded into a hard drive, which then transmogrifies into the “Max” we all know and love.

I remember first seeing the British pilot here in the states on Cinemax, which kicked off the domestic version of the variety series (only a handful of installments, which aired back in 1986). Unfortunately (most likely due to legal snafus) that original pilot is not included in the DVD set; if you scrounge around secondhand stores and yard sales you may spot the odd VHS copy (I found mine for $3 at a Hollywood Video a couple years ago when they were liquidating VHS inventory). I recommend catching it, if you haven’t.

What is included is the 14 episode season that aired on ABC in 1987, a coveted cult item. The reworked U.S. pilot  follows the same basic story line (although not quite as gritty and technically accomplished as the original) and sets up the character dynamics for the series. Frewer reprises his dual role as investigative TV journalist Edison Carter and his alter-ego, Max. Also retained from the original pilot are the lovely Amanda Pays (as Edison’s controller) and the delightful William Morgan Sheppard as “Blank Reg”, a Mohawk-sporting pirate cable channel entrepreneur. The always dependable Jeffrey Tambor was recruited for the U.S. series to play Carter’s producer.

Something else retained for the U.S. series (and much to its benefit) was a good portion of the original British production and writing team. As I’ve been working my way through the episodes over the past week, it amazes me how subversive the show was for U.S. network TV; especially with its unapologetic leftist, anti-corporate, anti-consumer culture message. With hindsight being 20/20, it’s not surprising that it was yanked after one season. Sad as it is for me to say, you would never see a show like this on American television now that dared to challenge the status quo (the X-Files had its moments, but cloaked them in horror-show silliness, more often than not).

Some of the story lines are quite prescient, dealing with themes like the advent of social networking, cyber-crime, and the merging of the technocracy with the idiocracy (which any casual perusal of YouTube will confirm). Perhaps what resonates most significantly in hindsight is the show’s depiction of news as infotainment and an insidiously corporate-controlled media (dismissed by many as far-fetched paranoid fantasy 23 years ago). Worth ch-ch-ch-checking out.

Nice sweaters: Adieu to TV’s At The Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2010)

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Being a renowned film critic on the blogosphere, I am often stopped by strangers on the street; and if there is one question that I am inevitably going to be asked, it is this one:

“Sir? Would you know if the Route 27 bus stops here?”

Maybe after that question, the one I am most frequently asked is:

“What ever made you think other people might care about your opinions on cinema?”

Well, if you must pry (“I must! I must!”), there are a couple pop cultural touchstones that nudged me toward upgrading from Annoying Movie Geek Who Never Shuts Up at Parties to Aspiring Film Critic. First, there was this 1985 panel by Matt Groening:

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Depending on your screen size, the graphics may not be 100% legible, but here’s the gist:

 Are you qualified to be a clever film critic?

  • Did you have no friends as a child?
  • Do you salivate at the smell of stale popcorn?
  • Do you thrill at the prospect of spending a career writing in-depth analyses of movies aimed at subliterate 15-year-olds?
  • Do you mind being loathed for your opinions?

The four types of clever film critics: Which do you aspire to be?

  • Academic type: boring, unreadable
  • Serious type: reveals endings
  • Daily type: nice plot summaries
  • TV clown: nice sweaters

For advanced clever film critics only:

Can you use “mise-en-scène” in a review that anyone will finish reading?

“Hey,” I thought, after passing milk and Cocoa Puffs through my nose, “I could do that!” Unfortunately, however, the internet hadn’t quite taken off yet, and if you wanted to be a clever film critic you still had to try to get a job at like, an actual newspaper or something. Besides, I was too busy at the time chasing a broadcasting career (funnily enough, after 35 years in the business, I’m still “chasing” it).

All kidding aside, there was a more significant touchstone for me, which preceded Groening’s satirical yet weirdly empowering observations. In the late 70s, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. This was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on “first-run” features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Also keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and the video stores were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional screenings of midnight movies at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV, but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my fellow culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where they had more theaters.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael, and thinking they had a pretty cool gig; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to be taken seriously as a film critic (most of those films just didn’t make it out to the sticks).

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Then, in 1978, our local PBS television affiliate began carrying a bi-weekly 30-minute program called Sneak Previews. Now here was something kind of interesting; a couple of guys (kind of scruffy lookin’) casually bantering about current films-who actually seemed to know their shit. You might even think they were professional movie critics…which it turned out they were.

In fact, they were professional rivals; Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wrote for competing Chicago dailies, the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune . This underlying tension between the pair was always bubbling just under the surface, but imbued the show with an interesting dynamic (especially when they disagreed on a film).

Still, I always got a vibe that they treated each other with respect (if begrudging at times) and most importantly, treated the viewers with respect as well. You never felt like they were talking above your head, like some of the traditional film essayists who were “boring, unreadable” (as Matt Groening describes the “academic types” in his panel above). Nor did they condescend, either.

This is where I part ways with Groening; his “TV clowns” reference above is clearly directed at Siskel & Ebert, but I would reserve that description for someone more along the lines of a Gene Shalit. One thing these two did share was an obvious and genuine love and respect for the art of cinema; and long before the advent of the internet, I think they were instrumental in razing the ivory towers and demystifying the art of film criticism (especially for culturally starved yahoos like me, living on the frozen tundra).

Last weekend, with minimal fanfare, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips, the most recent hosts of At the Movies (the long-running weekly syndicated review show that Siskel & Ebert created after they parted ways with the producers of Sneak Previews back in 1982) each gave their farewell soliloquy and quietly closed up the balcony for good.

That’s too bad, because during their relatively brief tenure, Scott and Phillips brought an erudite and thoughtful discourse to the show that had been sorely lacking for some time. To be sure, the program went through a lot of personnel changes over the years, and not always for the best (would it be tacky to mention Ben Lyons by name?). Although Ebert remained a stalwart fixture until health issues precipitated his 2006 departure, I thought that the show never quite recovered from the absence of Siskel (who died in 1999).

As Scott and Phillips rolled a collage of vintage Siskel & Ebert clips, I found myself unexpectedly choking up a little. Granted, the model pioneered by Siskel and Ebert may now seem staid and hoary in the era of Rotten Tomatoes, but its historical importance and effect on some of us “of a certain age” cannot be overlooked. So Roger, should you happen to be reading this (not likely, but I can dream, can’t I?) and to Gene, wherever you may be, somewhere out there in the ether: FWIW, I humbly offer my two enthusiastic thumbs up.

This film is rated NCC-1701: Star Trek ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullbaloo on May 16, 2009)

Wait a sec…these guys look familiar. Where have I…

Ah! Sie sind von die Zukunft!

OK, so now I have an excuse to tell you my Star Trek story. Actually, it’s not really that much of a story, but hey, I have some (virtual) column inches to fill-so here goes.

First off, I am not a diehard Trekker (more of a Dwarfer-if you must pry). I enjoyed the 60s TV series, and if I’m channel surfing and happen upon, say, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, or “Space Seed”…They Pull Me Back In (sorry, Mr. Pacino). I never bothered with  the spinoff series, but have seen the theatrical films. I tend to agree with the “even-numbered Trek films are the best” theory.

I’ve never felt the urge to buy collectibles, attend a convention, or don a pair of Spock ears for a Halloween party. However, as fate would have it, in my life I have had close encounters (of the 3rd kind) with two cast members from the original show; encounters that (I imagine) would make a hardcore fan wet themselves and act like the  star-struck celebrity interviewer Chris Farley used to play on SNL.

In the mid 80s, I was working as a morning personality at an FM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. Our station co-promoted a personal appearance by Walter Koenig at (wait for it) the Tanana Valley State Fair, so I had a chance to meet him. The thing that has always stuck with me, however, was not any particular thrill in meeting “Chekov”, but rather the 1000-yard stare he possessed. It was a look that spoke volumes. It was a look that said, “I can’t believe I’m onstage in a drafty barn in Fairbanks Alaska, fielding the same geeky questions yet again about the goddamn Russian accent. This is why I got into show business?!” To me, it was like watching a sad, real-life version of Laurence Olivier’s Archie in The Entertainer. And as a radio personality (lowest rung of the show biz ladder) and fledgling stand-up comic (next rung up), I wondered if this was A Warning.

Flash-forward to the mid 1990s. I had moved to Seattle, and found myself “between” radio jobs, supporting myself with sporadic stand-up comedy gigs and working through a temp agency. Through the temp agency, I ended up working for a spell at…at…okay, I’ll just blurt it out: a Honeybaked Ham store in Redmond (I’m sure that there is a special place in Hell for Jews who sell pork; on the other hand, one of my co-workers was a Muslim woman from Kenya, so at least there will be someone there that I already know).

So I’m wiping down the counter one slow day, thinking to myself “After 20 years in radio, and 10 in stand-up comedy, I can’t believe I’m working at a Honeybaked Ham in Redmond, Washington. This is why I got into show business?!” Suddenly, a limo pulls up, and in strolls a casually dressed, ruddy-faced, mustachioed gentleman, getting on in years (hearing aids in both ears). If you’ve ever worked retail, you know that after a while, all the customers sort of look the same; you look at them, but you don’t really SEE them.

As I was fetching the gentleman his ham and exchanging pleasantries, I caught a couple co-workers in my peripheral, quietly buzzing. I put two and two together with the limo and began to surreptitiously scrutinize the customer’s face a little more closely. Wait…is that…? Nah! Twice in one lifetime? What are the odds? He paid with a check. Name on the check? James Doohan. I kept my cool and closed the sale. As I watched him walk out the door, with a delicious, honey-glazed ham tucked under his arm, an old Moody Blues song began to play in my head: “Isn’t life stray-ay-ay-hange?”

You can only recycle a movie brand so many times before there is no where left to go but back to the beginning. The James Bond series reached that point with Casino Royale in 2006, 44 years after Dr. No. It now appears that the Star Trek franchise (blowing out 43 candles this year) has taken a cue from 007, and gone back to unearth its “first” mission.

Gene Roddenberry’s universally beloved creation has become so ingrained into our pop culture and the collective subconscious of Boomers (as well as the, um, next generation) that the producers of the latest installment didn’t have to entitle it with a qualifier. It’s not Star Trek: Origins, or Star Trek: 2009. It’s just Star Trek. They could have just as well called it Free Beer, judging from the $80,000,000 it has rung up at the box office already.

The filmmakers seem shrewd enough to realize that while it may not matter to casual moviegoers that the principal characters are being somewhat “re-imagined”, they still have to take steps to ensure that they do not provoke a fanboy jihad. And the best way to tap dance your way into obsessive Trekkers’ little pointy-eared hearts? Incorporate the original Roddenberry ethos. As box office numbers indicate, they have the “live long and prosper” part down, but-how does the film hold up in the “ethos” department, you may ask?

Rather nicely, actually. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is suitably bold, charismatic, and cocky. And he is younger than usual. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is suitably hyper-intelligent, stalwart and coolly logical. He’s also younger than usual. And he is older than usual; but I won’t go into that (it’s no secret that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance-so you can figure it out from there). Not that the plot really matters. Suffice it to say that it involves a time-traveling Romulan (Eric Bana, heavily disguised by the prosthetic face and oddly resembling Anthony Zerbe in The Omega Man) who is stalking Spock throughout the continuum for his own nefarious reasons.

The reason  plot doesn’t matter is because the best Star Trek stories are character-driven; specifically concerning the interplay between the principal crew members of the U.S.S. Enterprise. And it is here that director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have delivered in spades. The actors are given just enough signature lines to establish a reassuring nod and a wink to those in the audience who are familiar with the original characterizations; yet thankfully they have been directed to make the roles very much their own, never sinking into a self-conscious parody or merely “doing an impression” of their respective original cast member.

Pine and Quinto are quite adept at capturing the core dynamic of the relationship between Kirk and Spock as it was originally (and so indelibly) established by Shatner and Nimoy. Karl Urban steals all his scenes as Dr. McCoy, and in the film’s most inspired bit of casting, Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) proves a perfect choice as Chief Engineer Scott. Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Anton Yelchin (as Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, respectively) round off the principal crew members, tackling their relatively lesser roles with much aplomb.

The film is not wholly without its flaws (a lackluster villain, so-so special effects) but the tight direction, sharply written dialog and energetic young cast outweigh any negatives. Hell, this one might even shatter my “even numbers rule” (it’s the eleventh film, if you’re counting). I know this isn’t 100% kosher, but I’m rating Star Trek 4 out of 5 possible Honeybakcd Hams. And it was a pleasure serving you, Mr. Doohan. Wherever you are.

Whacking philosophical: The Sopranos coda

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2007)

https://uproxx.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/the_sopranos.jpg?resize=474%2C296

Well, this is it. After tonight, no more Sunday night dinners with Tony, Carmela and the, erm, Family (Hmmm…maybe no more Tony-we’ll know definitively by 10pm Eastern).

Whatever happens tonight on the series finale of HBO’s The Sopranos, one thing we can count on is this: It’s not likely to resemble M*A*S*H: The Final Episode (with the possible exception of the gunshot traumas). Let’s just say I don’t foresee a lot of hugging.

This mash-up of The Honeymooners with I, Claudius was a stroke of genius, and we probably will not see its like again anytime soon. Love it or hate it, David Chase’s epic mob drama has changed the formula of what constitutes a “hit series” and upped the ante considerably on TV drama in general. A 48 minute story arc just won’t cut it any more.

The Sopranos has weathered many storms since its 1999 debut, from initial accusations that the show was only serving to reinforce the Italian-American gangster stereotype, to a sophomore slump (Chase allegedly endured a paralyzing creative block getting the much-delayed and grumpily received fourth season underway), and most recently suffering a dramatic drop-off in viewership.

But despite the vacillating loyalty by viewers, the outcries from the PC police regarding stereotypes, sex and violence, and all the fan boys hand wringing themselves silly online over who shouldn’t have been whacked and who deserves to be whacked, one thing about the show has remained consistent. The directing, writing and acting has been, hands down, some of the best I have seen in any medium, whether it be network TV, cable or film. The Sopranos deserves every Emmy it has received and more, and I miss it already.

So what are we going to watch now on HBO Sunday nights? John from Cincinnati?! I hate it already. Somehow, the idea of a show centered on a philosophical surfer dude by the creators of Deadwood isn’t exactly grabbing me (why don’t they just fucking call it “Driftwood”-because that’s all it’s going to be in the wake of The Sopranos, IMHO).

And the biggest question of all-what’s James Gandolfini going to do now? Will he face the “Spock” curse of being so indelibly linked with one particular television character that he can never be taken seriously in any other role? Well, maybe he could look to Bill Shatner for inspiration… wait a minute…that’s it! Picture if you will: later tonight, after the final episode has been put to bed, Denny Crane and Tony Soprano are sitting on the balcony, enjoying their well-earned scotch and cigars. Denny turns to Tony and says reassuringly, “Don’t worry, Tone. There’s life after a cult series. Seriously.” Tony raises his glass, and with a sparkle in his eye, says: “Sleepover tonight?” To which Denny replies: “You don’t mean…’with the fishes’, do you?” Both men laugh and clink glasses.

(Music up, fade to black.) Adieu, Tony. Adieu.