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Monday, August 29, 2016

Thoughts on Empire Records

I rewatched Empire Records, after not having seen it since I was a teen, and it did not hold up well. I found the plot thin and flimsy (an employee gambles and loses 9 grand of the indie record store's money, and they have a day to save their store from being turned into a chain store and losing its uniqueness), and a lot of the performances were weak and forgettable (the exceptions being Robin Tunney as an angsty shaved-head misanthrope; Maxwell Caulfield as a vain and sleazy has-been pop star; and Ethan Embry as a cheery and goofy dork).

The movie had a decent soundtrack, and some quotable lines that seemed funnier when I saw it at 15. I could see why it bombed, because it didn't have a stronger story than "teens using music to rebel against authority." The director also did Pump Up the Volume, which had similar themes, but was much stronger, with more drama at stake (a teen suicide and a school expelling students deemed as "problems"). This movie got by on a talented cast (though a lot of the performances were weak, they did have future stars like Liv Tyler, Anthony LaPaglia, and Renee Zellweger in the cast) and some sweet pop songs by The Gin Blossoms and The Lemonheads. I think the movie is good for teens and 90's nostalgia, but not much else

Thoughts on So You Want to Be An Actor?

I enjoyed watching this instructional movie from 1993 called "So You Want To Be an Actor?" about navigating New York show business as an actor, like doing auditions, getting an agent, finding the right technique, and being a knowledgeable and well-rounded artist.

I watched it because it was hosted by Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, being a charming elderly couple in various Manhattan locations, like subways and restaurants. I found them to be warm and kind, with cute scripted quips (Stiller: "I love taking the subway. I picked you up on a subway." Meara: "No, I picked you up." Stiller looks at the camera with a "womp womp" expression), and liked their presence. They would have interview segments with famous acting professionals like Uta Hagen, Christopher Walken, and Roscoe Lee Browne, offering show biz advice, as well as with NY casting agents and theatre people.

I also liked seeing how Manhattan looked ca. 1992, and seeing how things were different pre-Internet boom, like people mailing their resumes in and searching the newspaper classifieds for apartments, jobs, and casting calls. They interviewed a lot of NY actors, and one described almost rooming with someone who had a $750/month apartment on Avenue B, but her room would be a closet in the guy's room, and she bailed. I also recognized Jason Woliner, a former child actor, who is now a TV producer and director (The Office, Parks & Recreation), and works a lot with Aziz Ansari (and is the Jason he jokes about in his standup). I just enjoyed the special more as archival footage of early 90's NY, and the cuteness of Stiller and Meara as hosts.

Thoughts on PBS Documentaries on U.S. Presidents

PBS has been playing documentaries on recent US presidents. The documentaries are from the 90's and 2010s, and are pretty interesting, especially on how I can learn more about the country at a particular point in time before I was born or too young to remember.

My thoughts: LBJ wasn't very progressive with civil rights (he continued some of Kennedy's work, but signed a 1965 act banning immigration from Africans and Asians and Eastern Europeans), and made a bad choice in entering the Vietnam War, and was pretty regretful over it. He just seemed lost when anti-war movements started, and said privately that there would be killing no matter what measures he took to continue or end the war.

Nixon was a horrible person, and I am amazed he became president. He was a dirty person who ruined other people's lives for political gain, and was incredibly distrustful.

They didn't air one on Ford.

Carter was better as a peace activist than being the president, and him acting like a sermonizing preacher to the country backfired hard. He worked hard to broker peace between Egypt and Israel, but was in a tough spot with giving asylum to the shah, which led to the Iranian hostage crisis. And the hostages only got released the minute Reagan was sworn in as president, to take away a win from Carter. Carter seems like a nice guy, but shouldn't have been president, he seemed too small-town for it.

Reagan was charismatic and witty, but seemed stuck in his own head a lot, and his Alzheimer's affected his decision-making, leading his staff members to either take over his duties or resign over their disagreement with the Cold War or nuclear threats. His meeting with Gorbachev was groundbreaking in finding peace and understanding with Russia, but he also participated in the Iran Contra situation while feigning ignorance, and didn't publically acknowledge AIDS until 1987, six years after the disease started infecting and killing people. I could see why conservatives liked him, but his economic policies led to two major recessions, and he seemed too elite for the majority of average Americans.

Thoughts on Battle Creek

This weekend, I scrolled through Netflix, and decided to watch something starring Dean Winters, because I think he is hilarious in playing cynical assholes with a straight delivery. So I watched a short-lived TV show he did last year with Josh Duhamel called Battle Creek. I remembered seeing commercials for it last year and psyched at seeing Winters starring in a show, but I forgot about it, and it got cancelled.

I really liked it. Winters played a small-town Michigan detective whose police department was underfunded with outdated technology, so the FBI sets up a satellite office and sends in an agent (Duhamel) to work there and be partners with Winters. There is a lot of conflict between them, as Winters is more of a cynic who has hardly left his hometown, is blue-collar, and feels underappreciated in his work, while Duhamel is charming, handsome, liked by everyone, gets publicity when he solves a case, and drives Winters crazy with his vagueness about his past and his convenient lies about his backstory. Neither trust each other, and I liked watching the evolution as they both learned to work together, trust one another, and have a deeper understanding of one another, it felt really earned and worth it to watch.

It had a good ensemble cast. I liked seeing Janet McTeer as the assertive and caring police chief, Liza Lapira as a perceptive and intelligent cop, and Kal Penn as a mature and down to earth detective. There were some good guest appearances from Candice Bergin as an convicted con artist and Winters' mother; Robert Sean Leonard as a grieving father out for vengeance; Patton Oswalt as a party-boy mayor who gets nearly assassinated; and Bokeem Woodbine as a remorseless killer in a cold case.

The show even had a "will they or won't they" subplot with Winters and the office manager (Aubrey Dollar) being secretly attracted to each other, and denying their real feelings to just be platonic co-workers. Normally I don't like that trope, as it gets tedious (plus I thought the actors had too big of an age difference of 16 years that made it look less equal), but the show handled it well, and it ended up closing in a nice and less predictable way.

The show was a very good mix of comedy and drama, and would get dead serious at times, so much that I would forget about the comedic parts and be into the drama. I would say the humor and pace is like Castle, but it still felt like its own thing. I read an AV Club interview with Winters where he mentioned previous shows of his that got cancelled that he liked making (Life on Mars, Happy Town), and hoped that Battle Creek would last. Unfortunately, I don't think it was promoted much, and was easy to forget to watch.

I heard of Winters through Oz (I didn't see it when it aired, I had just heard of him as one of the breakout stars), and enjoying seeing him pop up in a lot of NYC-based TV shows (Law & Order, Sex & the City, Rescue Me, Brooklyn 99, 30 Rock), even if he almost always was a streetwise cynical asshole. I like his warm, cigarette-touched voice, and how he can be absolutely hilarious in giving straight delivery of self-centered, arrogant jerkoffs. He rarely plays a nice guy (Rescue Me was an exception), yet I found him totally likable anyway. He just seems like an awesome guy, and I like seeing him pop up in stuff as a reliable character actor.

Southside with You - A Film Review

I liked Southside with You. It was a charming, pleasant, and chill movie about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date (albeit with some dramatic license of visiting places and having conversations that likely didn't happen on the date).

Both actors were really great in portraying young versions of the Obamas, and I liked how it portrayed the South Side of Chicago as a warm and close-knit community to grow up in, from Michelle's perspective. I liked how the two found common g...round despite their different upbringings (Barack being biracial and growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia; Michelle being black and growing up in working-class Chicago), because they were both dedicated to advocating on behalf of their people and having close ties to their community.

Sometimes some parts seemed too on-the-nose ("You are great at giving speeches!" "Follow your dreams!" "You can make a difference in the world!"), but that is a minor criticism.

I liked how peaceful the movie was in just following the two on their "not a date" (as Michelle kept re-iterating) through an art museum, a community meeting in a church, parks, a bar, and their reactions to the ending of Do The Right Thing. I especially loved the title sequence, where Barack is driving through Chicago to pick up Michelle as Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much" plays, and it both sets the time period and acts like a complement to the city scenery of black life.

This could be any indie movie about people on a date, and it does earn its comparisons to Before Sunrise, as well as any laid-back dialogue-driven film set in one day. I can't imagine what the Obamas would feel about it, but I felt the film was respectful and not overly worshipful of their characters.