March 27, 2014
March 24, 2014
“The Toolbox” is our weekly drill down of celebrities, politicians and other news makers who are trending for all the wrong reasons. From questionable thinking and general stupidity to ham-handed decision making and a death long in coming, these five individuals are among the biggest losers of the past seven days.
Sure, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour can make or break a designer with a snap of her bony fingers but, even she can become a fashion victim. Witness the outcry from all quarters regarding the April issue of Conde Naste’s flagship glossy. What’s all the bitching about? The cover “models” are Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, two mind-numbing idiots who somehow captured Wintour’s clearly questionable imagination. Critics were even more peeved by her editor’s letter, a hooty bit of prose made even more laugh-out-loud hilarious because every word was meant to be taken seriously. When Buffy wants to put a stake in the heart of your publication, you know you’ve gone epic fail. On the up side, Seth Rogan and James Franco had a Photoshop field day at Vogue’s expense.
Speaking of failures, the movers and shakers at GOP High Command apparently figured out that the likes of Victoria Jackson, Mary Lou Retton and Tony Danza aren’t exactly catnip for young voters. What’s a party dominated by white geezers and bunker dwellers to do when attracting elusive millennials is key to long term viability? Enter Scott Greenberg, a douchey 30-something with slicked back hair and hipster glasses. He’s the star of a new ad campaign that’s designed to let the young’uns know it’s OK to vote Republican…at least that’s what it was supposed to do. The social media reaction was brutally vicious and online media outlets had a field day. Greenberg has already become a punching bag for comedians and we’ve barely known him a week. Without even trying, the Right has a “pajama boy” of its very own. Way to win one for The Gipper!
Let’s keep it in the Republican family and give Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal his moment in the spotlight. Despite the fact that Jindal says something asinine almost every time he opens his mouth, it’s his questionable actions of late that earned him a spot on our list. You see, the liberal organization MoveOn.org decided to roll out a media campaign critical of Jindal’s refusal to embrace the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. The ads are a parody of the state’s tourism motto and logo. Apparently, the truth hurt the thin-skinned governor enough that the state of Louisiana has filed a lawsuit against MoveOn.org on the grounds that they are unlawfully using a protected service mark. Never mind that the legal action is a huge waste of money for a cash-strapped state. It’s also given Jindal’s critics a ton of free publicity and made the ad campaign even more effective. Smooth move, Gov.
Richard Quest is very British, very brash and very annoying. He’s a talking head on CNN with a gaping grin that would give The Joker nightmares. You might remember him from his arrest for meth possession back in 2008. Though Quest is primarily a business reporter, the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 has apparently awoken his inner aviation expert. Yes folks, only at CNN could helming a monthly show on business travel suddenly make you a go-to guy for commentary on one of the most baffling mysteries in the history of air travel. It doesn’t help matters that Quest punctuates every word of the bullshit he spews with invisible exclamation points. HE’S! THAT! CONVINCED! EVERY! WORD! HE! SPEAKS! IS! A! PEARL! OF! WISDOM! In reality he’s just another cable network gas bag who earns a living passing off rampant speculation as real news.
Fred Phelps is the founder of a cult of inbred wackos known as the Westboro Baptist Church. You might know these folks better as the “God hates fags” contingent. Last week, for the first time in his life, Phelps finally did something good. He died.
Look for another edition of “The Toolbox” next week. CLICK HERE to see all the tools we’ve profiled.
March 23, 2014
IN TWEET: DISNEY HATERS BE DAMNED! “SAVING MR. BANKS” COMES HOME IN A GLORIOUS BLU-RAY EDITION. IT’S A JOY TO BEHOLD.
I worked for the Walt Disney Company from 2002 to 2006. Though I have mostly fond memories, I was never one to drink the fairy dust flavored Kool Aid. Perhaps that’s why I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed SAVING MR. BANKS. Yes, it is a Disneyfied take on a slice of film history but it’s hardly the sanitized picture many naysayers were expecting.
The biggest surprise is how much of the two hour film Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) isn’t in. He’s an important presence who’s there for the big moments but he’s not the feature attraction. That distinction belongs to P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of a series of beloved children’s books featuring the character of Mary Poppins. Disney’s aggressive campaign to land the screen rights to the property (motivated, he says, by a promise made to his daughters) frames a series of extended flashbacks to the author’s tragic childhood in Australia.
P.L. Travers was born Helen Lyndon Goff, the oldest of three children. Her father, Travers (Colin Farrell), was a man with a big imagination and an even bigger problem with alcohol. He was also a screw-up at work and a source of constant frustration for his long suffering wife, Margaret (Ruth Wilson). Things get bad enough that, at one point late in the film, she tries to take her own life.
Travers Goff did die at a very young age, an event that scarred his whole family but was especially hard on young Helen. He was the source of her pen name and his memory would inform everything from her distrust of others (especially Disney) to the depiction of the Mr. Banks character in the MARY POPPINS books. It also goes a long way toward explaining the title of the film (a studio decision that some point to as a factor in the middling box office gross of SAVING MR. BANKS).
When the film opens, Travers tries to rebuff another of what have become annual overtures by Walt Disney. She gets a reality check from her agent regarding her precarious finances and reluctantly agrees to fly to California and meet with a man she openly despises. While using the unsigned contract for the film rights as a dangling carrot, Travers turns pre-production on MARY POPPINS into a grand game of cat and mouse. These are some of the most electric scenes in SAVING MR. BANKS.
Travers insists that all meetings be recorded (something you’ll be thankful for if you stay through the closing credits) and she makes demands of the production team that are often arbitrary and cruel. A highlight: Travers insists that the color red appear nowhere in the film, just because. Watching Disney bow to this ridiculous request is a sight to behold.
The road to Travers eventually signing over the film rights is rocky and often profoundly emotional. At the outset, she is horrified by overtly commercial attempts to woo her (like a hotel suite overstuffed with gift baskets and Disney plush). Production meetings typically degenerate into battles with screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman). Travers is openly hostile to everyone associated with the studio and eventually heads back to London.
Of course, we all know the film got made but how Disney clinched the deal wasn’t a simple matter and it isn’t given short shrift here. On more than one occasion, he reneges on promises made to Travers and gives her every good reason to doubt his sincerity. The decision to add an animated sequence to MARY POPPINS is a particularly egregious example of Disney going back on his word. Still, the two eventually arrive at a place of mutual respect and understanding. The breakthrough moment, when the Sherman Brothers debut “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” for Travers, will have you reaching for the tissue box.
Performances are top-notch across the board. Colin Farrell breathes life into what could have been a two-dimensional character and Wilson does nice work along side him. Whitford, Novak and Schwartzman are particularly effective and more than hold their own in numerous scenes with Thompson (no small feat). It’s also nice to see Schwartzman reign in the weird for a change.
Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney with restrained gusto and does an admirable job of showing him as both a fatherly figure and a self-impressed ego maniac. A sequence shot at Disneyland has Walt handing out pre-signed autograph cards to tourists as he tries to impress an exasperated Travers. Hanks infuses the scene with an imperious air that feels like a knowing nod to Disney’s reputation as a benevolent dictator.
SAVING MR. BANKS really belongs to Emma Thompson and she is wonderful throughout. It’s a testimony to her considerable acting chops that we’re always rooting for Travers, even when she’s running roughshod over everyone in sight. A good chunk of credit must also be given to screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith. The pair is careful to avoid pitfalls that might turn the Travers character into a repellant harpy, something I’m not sure a male screenwriter would have pulled off with as much skill.
The only real rough spot in SAVING MR. BANKS is a sequence depicting the Hollywood premiere of MARY POPPINS. It’s oddly paced and feels a little rushed. On the plus side, there are no attempts to re-create scenes from the film using bad lookalikes. Any clips we do see are taken directly from MARY POPPINS itself. Disney groupies will be also be happy with subtle in-jokes like the vintage studio logo used in the opening titles and a large map of Florida seen in the background of one shot. Production values are exceptional throughout and the blu-ray transfer is gorgeous.
SAVING MR. BANKS is a film that should have done better at the box office. It’s darker and more emotional than you might think but it’s also a heartfelt valentine to a beloved classic and a tribute to the amazing woman who gave us Mary Poppins.
RONTHINK GRADE: B+
Click on either image below to purchase SAVING MR. BANKS or the new 50th Anniversary Edition of MARY POPPINS from Amazon.
March 20, 2014
IN TWEET: HELPING YOU GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR NETFLIX SUBSCRIPTION WITH A LOOK AT “MUST SEE” CONTENT BEYOND NEW RELEASES.
Welcome to “Stream,” a new regular feature that highlights great content available on streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu. We’ll take you beyond new releases and bring you movies, TV series and documentaries that are worth adding to your queue. Up first: eight “must see” TV comedies available now on Netflix.
NOTE: All series featured were available for streaming via Netflix at the time this post was written. Some programming may become unavailable at a future date due to terms and conditions in the carriage deals between Netflix and content providers. Netflix has not paid any sponsorship or promotional fees for this post. If available, links are also included for Amazon Instant Video and Hulu.
I’m not a fan of most adult-targeted animated series. I’ve never sat through a full episode of THE SIMPSONS or FAMILY GUY and I stopped watching SOUTH PARK about ten years ago. Maybe I’m trapped in a Bugs Bunny bubble but, most of what’s out there plays like repetitive snark; same joke, different poorly animated character. That’s why ARCHER is such a pleasant surprise. It’s a gleefully dirty, whip-smart send-up of the spy genre that also has more than a few things to say about gender roles and current social issues (though you’ll be hard pressed to figure out when, decade-wise, the show is set).
ARCHER works because creator Adam Reed knows how to balance low-brow humor with intelligent dialogue and spot-on pop culture references. The uniformly excellent voice cast includes H. Jon Benjamin, Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler and the amazing Jessica Walter.
ARCHER is currently in first-run on FX (and was recently picked up for two more seasons). The previous four seasons are available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video and Hulu.
Picture one of the many series starring Tracy Ullmann…but funny. Really, really funny. That’s THE CATHERINE TATE SHOW, a bawdy British import that has Tate playing a variety of recurring characters in short-form sketches. My personal favorite is the bitter, foul-mouthed grandmother from hell (pictured above), a role that stirred up more than a little controversy in the UK. Tate and her supporting players shine and, unlike SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, the show knows when to end a sketch before it wears out its welcome.
If stateside audiences know Tate, it’s most likely from a two-season stint as Nellie Bertram on the US re-make of THE OFFICE. That’s a shame because it’s a role that only scratched the surface of her considerable comedic talents.
THE CATHERINE TATE SHOW ran for three series (18 episodes) all of which are available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Hulu.
I stumbled upon re-runs of FRASIER on the Hallmark Channel. Despite ham-handed censorship by the network (words like “slut” and “bitch” are bleeped) and frequent commercial interruptions for mail order catheters and Angie’s List, I found myself laughing at something I refused to watch when it was on NBC. FRASIER was a spin-off from CHEERS, a show I always hated, so naturally I assumed its offspring would suck too. Color me dead wrong.
What could have been another ill-conceived star vehicle (think JOEY or anything with Kirstie Alley) turned out to be a finely crafted ensemble comedy. Bucking a sit-com trend, FRASIER ran for eleven seasons and actually got better with age. A strong cast (including an impressive array of A-list guest stars) and exceptional writing give each episode a play-like feel. The show never went off the rails and ended on its own terms. It’s “comfort comedy” that won’t leave you feeling guilty for enjoying it.
All eleven seasons of FRASIER are available for streaming on Netflix. Seasons 1-9 are in SD (4:3 aspect ratio) and seasons 10 and 11 are in HD (16:9 aspect ratio). The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video and Hulu.
KEEPING UP APPEARANCES is one of my favorite British imports. It’s broad farce and classic slapstick given new life by the bravura comedic performance of Patricia Routledge. She plays Hyacinth Bucket (who insists her last name be pronounced “Bouquet”), the ultimate wannabe social climber and town gadfly. Each episode centers on her latest scheme to see and be seen and the disastrous results that follow. Along for the ride: Hyacinth’s long suffering husband Richard, her nervous neighbor Elizabeth and a decidedly low-brow extended family.
Routledge plays Hyacinth like a force of nature and gives Lucille Ball a run for her money when it comes to physical comedy. She’s that good. This is one of those sit-coms that would be hard to pull off with anyone else in the lead. Routledge was in her 60’s when KEEPING UP APPEARANCES was in production and, with few exceptions, she performs all of her own stunts. The series is silly fluff but it’s also undeniably funny and well worth your time.
All five series of KEEPING UP APPEARANCES are available for streaming on Netflix. NOTE: as of this writing, Netflix erroneously lists all 45 episodes as being from 1 series. Also, for some odd reason, episodes 30 and 34 are transposed. That’s important because “Indoor/Outdoor Luxury BBQ With Finger Buffet” is my favorite episode and it’s actually #34, not #30.
NBC has two sit-coms that feature the exploits of a group of small-town crazies. One, COMMUNITY, is an unfunny and wildly overrated mess that keeps coming back like a cold sore. The other, PARKS & RECREATION, is that rare single camera comedy that can handle the meta-humor while also wearing its heart on its sleeve. It’s such a great show, it somehow manages to make Aubrey Plaza tolerable. In my book, that’s no small feat.
What helps PARKS & RECREATION rise above the clutter is a genuine love for its characters and the ability to skewer small-town life without being mean. The lion’s share of the credit goes to star/producer Amy Poehler. In less capable hands, the character of Leslie Knope (Poehler) would be a one-note annoyance. Instead, she’s blossomed into a lovable do-gooder who genuinely believes there’s an upside to be found in just about every situation. The series also features a strong supporting cast, with a special nod to stand-out work by Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Adam Scott, Retta and Rob Lowe.
PARKS & RECREATION is currently in first-run on NBC (and was just picked up for another season). The previous five seasons are available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video and Hulu.
PORTLANDIA is an acquired taste. Of all the series highlighted here, it’s the one most likely to leave you scratching your head. Give it a few episodes and let the heavily improvised, slow-burn satire wash over you. It’s a smart comedy that is worth the extra effort.
Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein created the series and appear in most sketches. Armisen never impressed me on SNL but here he shines, especially when playing one of several recurring female characters. Uptight Lefties might be put off by the barbs directed at tree huggers, feminist lesbians, vegans and other Portland-centric progressives but tweaking the unflinchingly self-righteous is a big part of what makes PORTLANDIA so much fun.
PORTLANDIA is currently in first-run on IFC. The previous three seasons are available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video and Hulu.
THE VICAR OF DIBLEY is a gentle comedy from the UK that features a stand-out performance by Dawn French. It’s also proof that religion doesn’t have to be a comedy killer or a lightening rod for controversy.
French plays The Reverend Geraldine Granger, newly arrived in the farming town of Dibley. She exudes a joie de vivre that helps her win over naysayers who initially greet her with equal parts prejudice and suspicion. This is another comedy that knows how to balance small town satire with genuine affection for its characters. It’s also a show that isn’t afraid to tug at your heart strings, as the death of a beloved character in “The Easter Bunny” episode demonstrates. It’s unexpected and quite poignant.
THE VICAR OF DIBLEY ran for three series (16 full-length episodes) all of which are available for streaming on Netflix. Two stand-alone Christmas specials are also available. The series is also available on Hulu.
30 ROCK combines the best elements of improvisation, single camera comedy and biting satire. Each episode crams a dizzying array of in-jokes and pop culture references into a loosely structured format that almost never spins out of control. It has star/creator Tina Fey’s fingerprints all over it (and that’s a very good thing).
Fey plays Liz Lemon, a loveable curmudgeon who helms a middling sketch comedy series called “The Girlie Show.” 30 ROCK opens with network honcho Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) forcing her to add out-there comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan, pretty much playing himself) to the cast and re-title the show “TGS with Tracy Jordan.” Subsequent episodes involve Lemon trying to balance the egos of her cast and writers, a roller-coaster personal life and an increasingly complex relationship with Donaghy.
30 ROCK is funny but what really sets it apart is the fearless gusto with which it bites the hand that feeds. The “hand” in this case is NBC and a revolving door of corporate parents. The network is the butt of many jokes, with the anti-corporate humor getting particularly sharp in the seasons that follow the buyout of NBC/Universal by Comcast (here scathingly referred to as Kabletown).
The final season is wildly uneven and I hate every single guest appearance by annoying comedy killer Kristen Schaal (as equally annoying NBC page Hazel) but, by just about every other measure, 30 ROCK shines.
30 ROCK ran for seven seasons, all of which are available for streaming on Netflix. The series is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
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