Wednesday, January 28, 2009

leveraging the ordinary

Back in November at work (when I was still working) we received promotional junk from TNT to promote another one of its new series, Leverage. It stars Timothy Hutton, and TNT wants to remind everyone that he's an Oscar winner, though it's been approximately 57 years since he won the Best Supporting Actor award for Ordinary People.

I saw that movie for the first time in October, knowing Hutton had won for Best Supporting Actor, but I was surprised to see that he plays the main character. Then I wondered if Donald Sutherland, who plays his father, was nominated for Best Actor.

Studios will often trumpet a lead actor in a film for a Best Supporting Actor or Actress nomination if they think another lead in the same film has a better chance at a Best Actor or Actress nomination—they don't want the nominees canceling each other out. An example that immediately comes to mind is John Travolta being nominated for Best Actor for 1994's Pulp Fiction and Samuel L. Jackson getting a nod for Supporting Actor, even though their characters share equal time and stature in Quentin Tarantino's film.

I think I've even read that some actors have it written into their contracts that those "For Your Consideration" ads that take up so much space in Variety during awards season only promote them, not their costars, for Best Actor or Actress. I definitely remember reading that trade-paper ads like the ridiculous one that asked Academy voters to take a second look at Sylvester Stallone in the 1996 disaster movie Daylight are the product of contractual agreements. (Stallone did get a nomination—for Worst Actor at that year's Razzie Awards, but he lost to Tom Arnold and Pauly Shore, who tied.)

Back to Ordinary People. I looked at the movie's page on IMDB and saw that Sutherland wasn't nominated for Best Actor, though Mary Tyler Moore, who's impressive as Hutton's mother, was nominated for Best Actress. I assume that Paramount, who produced the film, was hoping for a Best Actor nomination for Sutherland and it didn't come through. Judd Hirsch was nominated alongside Hutton as Best Supporting Actor, but they obviously didn't cancel each other out.

And now back to Leverage. The promotional junk we received at the Chicago Reader included an energy drink with the series' name and a picture of the cast wrapped around the can. It's the Leverage beverage! "Fuel up for TNT's newest high energy drama series," the can says, so I did.

Or at least I tried. I'd never had a Red Bull or any other kind of energy drink before, so when I poured the 8.3 fluid ounces of liquid Leverage into a glass, I was both mesmerized and repulsed by its resemblance to radioactive urine. I used to like Mountain Dew and Mello Yello, but I always drank them from the can—"out of sight, out of mind" is the best course of action you can take with those yellowish-green soft drinks.

I took one sip of the Leverage beverage and realized something important: I wasn't missing out all those years I didn't try Red Bull. I'm sure it's a taste one acquires over time, like Diet Coke or mass murder, but I'd rather waste my time doing and tasting other things. I poured out the rest of the Leverage beverage, scrubbed the glass clean, and went back to being an ordinary, award-free citizen.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Christmas miracles and otherwise

On December 23 I received an e-mail from the president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Network of Strength. The subject heading was "We can't wait for tomorrow's cure." What great timing for such momentous, uplifting news (unless you're Jesus, but he always upstages everyone else born on December 25, so it's about time he was knocked down a peg)!

Unfortunately, Christmas Eve came and went without any announcement of a cure. I felt used, like anyone who's ever sat through endless teasers on a local newscast just to find out it's the chili at Wendy's that contains human fingers, not the burgers or fries or Frostys or anything I would normally order there. And then when you discover that the chili never contained fingers, that it was all a hoax concocted by a customer who decided to try a unique approach to asking for a refund, you wonder if you'll ever be able to trust anyone again.

Speaking of hoaxes, I saw Lasse Hallstrom's 2007 film The Hoax over Christmas. I think it might be my favorite movie of the past two years. Based on a true story chronicled in the book of the same name, it stars Richard Gere as author Clifford Irving, who convinced his publisher, McGraw-Hill, that he'd been contacted by Howard Hughes to help him write his autobiography. Never mind that Irving's previous book was Fake!, a biography of art forger Elmyr de Hory. Though McGraw-Hill was suspicious, they weren't about to let the autobiography of the world's most mysterious recluse billionaire get away. Irving proceeded to write the book with his friend and researcher Richard Suskind (played by Alfred Molina, who has good comic chemistry with Gere, an actor who gets better with age as his vanity continues to fade), thinking no one would be able to discredit what he wrote since Hughes would never surface to contradict him.

What I loved most about The Hoax is that it's based on a true story that's based on an elaborate lie. Movies based on true stories always take certain liberties with the facts for the sake of dramatic license—movies are "life with the boring parts cut out," as someone once said—and whenever we watch a movie, we buy into the lie when we pay for our ticket. It's in the contract.

Frost/Nixon, for instance, fictionalizes certain events surrounding the 1977 televised interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon in order to build suspense and provide motivation for the "characters," and just as no court cases in real life proceed anything like the ones you see on TV shows such as Boston Legal, it's hard to imagine that neither Frost nor Nixon had any kind of poker face during the real interviews. (You can see clips from them on YouTube.)

But all of it works in the name of compelling drama, even if, like me, you leave the theater and are crushed when you read a review that says a piece of damning information against Nixon that appears at the 11th hour in the film had been in Frost's possession much earlier. (And now the truth: I read that in a review before I saw the movie. But it works better in terms of this plot if I say the opposite.)

It's hard to know what's fact and what's fiction in The Hoax, but that works in the film's favor, especially in scenes where Irving believes he's been visited by Hughes's own private CIA but can't prove it exists outside of his imagination, just as he imagined entire decades of Hughes's life before committing them to the page. That's why it's funny that the Wikipedia page on Irving contains the following sentence: "Irving ... decried the film as a distortion of the story, in particular citing the film's portrayals of himself, Suskind and Edith Irving as inaccurate and claiming that the film added events and scenes that did not occur in real life."

And around and around we go.

One of the most interesting aspects of The Hoax concerns Richard Nixon, in fact, and the conclusion of the film wants us to believe that the Watergate break-in was executed in part to retrieve advance copies of the Hughes autobiography, which reportedly contained dirt on Nixon and had been sent to the Democratic National Committee's headquarters. I don't know if that's true, and part of me doesn't care since The Hoax plays such an entertaining mind game.

Frank Langella, who plays Nixon in Frost/Nixon and whose performance is the best part of the movie, said in a New York Times article on January 4 that there isn't much personal information about him on the Internet or elsewhere because "I'm not in the business of confessing, and I'm deeply offended by people who are."

If he doesn't want to confess whether or not ex-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg was good in bed or not, that really is his business, but it makes me wonder what he thought of Nixon's partial confession of guilt in the final Frost-Nixon interview about Watergate. Screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also wrote the play the movie is based on, implies that one reason Nixon agreed to the interviews was because he felt guilty about his guilt, that he needed to confess in order to move forward.

In the film James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) says he'll take on the job of researcher for Frost if he's guaranteed that the Nixon interviews will give the pardoned president the trial he never had, not make the viewing audience sympathetic to him in any way. But in that New York Times article Langella says he knew that "whatever I did, I could never satisfy some people, especially the ones who just want to hate Nixon ... But why shouldn't he be human? Why shouldn't he be sympathetic and touching, along with all the rest—vicious, cruel, a liar and a crook?"

Langella, Morgan, and director Ron Howard do succeed in making the audience sympathetic to Nixon, or maybe I'm just speaking for myself as someone who was born after he'd resigned from office. For one thing, in terms of historical context, Nixon seems a hell of a lot smarter than George W. Bush ever was or ever will be, and unlike Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he inherited the Vietnam war from previous administrations, though he did escalate it.

These points were brought up after a prerelease screening of Frost/Nixon on December 1 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., attended by Howard, Morgan, and Reston. According to political columnist Roger Simon, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace objected to Reston after he said, "The younger generation feels Richard Nixon was railroaded out of office and what he did was trivial compared to what George W. Bush did." Wallace argued that Bush's post-9/11 actions were done to "protect this country" against its mortal enemies, not its political enemies, as was the case with Nixon.

I can see both sides, and I've heard that Oliver Stone's W., which opened last October but faded quickly, turned Bush into something of a sympathetic figure too. Howard said at the Wilson Center screening that he shot an alternate ending for Frost/Nixon and showed it to some test audiences, who responded well to it and wrote on their comment cards after the test screenings that it showed how Nixon had "changed" as a person, making him more sympathetic. Howard, perhaps bowing to the pressure of American history in this case more than he would have, say, with Tom Hanks's character in the mermaid comedy Splash (1984), decided not to use the alternate ending.

Even so, Nixon remains a tragic, sympathetic figure in the film. If that seems like a hoax to some viewers, it will still remain the truth for others. Besides, it's not like he ever put a finger in someone's chili. Nixon was tricky, not pranky.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

It's a mad mad mad mad world.

Mad Men has been an Emmy-winning hit for AMC, which used to be American Movie Classics, but once it started showing films like Death Wish 3 (sponsored one night last summer by, of all things, a Time-Life collection of Contemporary Christian Music), the cable channel had to take a long, hard look at itself in the mirror and come clean. Or, better yet, abbreviate its name and not tell anyone what it stands for anymore.

Tomorrow night TNT debuts Trust Me, starring Tom Cavanagh (Ed) and Eric McCormack (Will & Grace). It's another series about people working at an ad agency, except it's set in the present day and doesn't have the pedigree of being created by an ex-Sopranos writer.

In August 1988 CBS debuted its own show set in the advertising world, but it only lasted one episode: Mad Avenue was its name, and according to IMDB, it was a "drama about the 'frantic professional and personal' lives of the staff at a national advertising agency." The title is short for Madison Avenue, but IMDB says the one episode was shot "entirely on location in Toronto, Canada."

False advertising? No, but the way in which CBS presented Mad Avenue to viewers was slightly misleading.

Back in the '80s, when the networks could still afford to take the entire summer off and depend on viewers coming back en masse in the fall for new episodes, original programming often boiled down to tossed-off pilots of shows that weren't picked up for fall or midseason. Since they weren't going to see the light of day any other way, CBS decided to air its unsold pilots under the umbrella title of CBS Summer Playhouse in 1987, '88, and '89.

Mad Avenue was one such pilot that didn't make it onto CBS's 1988 fall schedule. It starred a post-Hill Street Blues, pre-Doogie Howser James B. Sikking (on the latter show he always looked like he'd had a drink or two before arriving on the set), presumably an adman at the fictional agency of Stein, Atkins, Thomas, Andrews & Noble. IMDB helpfully points out the acronym: SATAN. And the address of the agency was 666 Madison Avenue. (I used to like a girl who worked at a museum located at 666 Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Take a wild guess as to how that courtship panned out.)

These days unsold pilots rarely make it to the air, though the once proud, now dead cable network known as Trio showed some of them in 2003 under the umbrella title of Brilliant But Cancelled. Some network executives have suggested that pilot "season," when pilots are ordered, cast, shot, and edited, be done away with entirely because of all the time and money that's expended on the final product, the main problem being that the majority of the pilots won't be sold and turned into series. (Last season's writers' strike affected pilot season, which is one reason it was reevaluated. Mad Avenue aired a couple weeks after the 1988 writers' strike ended.)

I didn't see Mad Avenue when it aired, but the name has stuck with me all these years. So has Bill Hicks's routine about people who work in marketing and advertising.

Hicks was 30 when he filmed Revelations, the stand-up special the above clip is taken from; he died two years later of pancreatic cancer. If he was alive today he'd be 47, and I assume he'd be a mellower guy about things like commercials and the people who create them. But maybe not. I just hope he wouldn't be taking supporting roles in movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007) and its upcoming "squeakquel."

David Cross, a Hicks-style comedian and actor who appears in the Chipmunks movies (to be fair, he's also been in critically acclaimed movies like I'm Not There and Ghost World), was 38 when he recorded his stand-up album Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! (2002). The jokes and routines have a mostly bitter edge, especially when he discusses politics and religion.

Bitter can be funny, as Hicks proved, but on that album Cross rarely makes himself the butt of the joke just as the humor is about to tip over into anger, therefore turning some of his routines into self-righteous rants. He also interrupts himself so many times with the all-purpose adjective and adverb "fuckin'," not to mention the handy time-stalling phrase "you know," that his jokes go on far longer than they should, weakening the punchlines. On his follow-up album, It's Not Funny (2004), his timing is much sharper, he's more self-deprecating, and his jokes are funnier in general. It is funny. It's also a single disc, whereas Shut Up contains two discs filled with two hours of material—the preaching to the drunk choir feels like it'll never end.

Cross defended his participation in the first Chipmunks movie early last year on the website he shares with fellow Mr. Show creator Bob Odenkirk and their comedian friends. He wrote that his fans and critics shouldn't bother questioning it because it's "a waste of time and energy. I choose to care about other things that I believe are worth the investment of that kind of outrage, disappointment, and sense of urgency."

But if you're going to dish it out in a war of words with comedians you don't respect, like Larry the Cable Guy, you should be able to take it just as well and understand why you're on the receiving end this time. Cross also admits that "I used my 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' money to pay for the down payment [on a cottage]. Seriously, I totally did." Seriously? Yes, totally. Because it's easier to forgive a cozy new cottage than a pile of coke and hookers (for the record, one pile of coke, one separate pile of hookers).

I bet a lot of actors who do commercials, even voice-over work like the kind Gene Hackman does for Lowe's (Cross has done it for video games like Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto, according to his IMDB page, and he was the Daniel Stern-like narrator of the Fox sitcom Oliver Beene five years ago), enjoy the paychecks they receive that allow them to buy new summer homes. Unlike Hicks, who was an angry young man at the time, I forgive them. But I don't want to get into the politics of stardom. I'd much rather hear Cross deliver a ... fuckin', you know ... funny, self-mocking routine about it instead.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

how to keep customers coming back for more

Good customer service is critical. People might not come back to your store if they're treated poorly by the employee at the cash register. Recently I noticed post-transaction meet-and-greets, if you will, at the top of receipts from Walgreens and Jewel-Osco, the latter a midwestern grocery/drugstore chain.

Michael's message is a little too eager. I don't know if he's going to get to first base with me the next time I'm at Walgreens. In other words, I won't buy an impulse item in the checkout line just because he's grateful he was allowed to serve me the last time I was there. Michael, I came into your store. I'm chasing you, so stop kissing my ass! Play hard to get next time and see if you get more repeat business. How about something like "I'm Michael. It was cool meeting you, I guess, but it's not like we're married now." Or "I'm Michael. Come back soon and I'll show you where I hide my stash." Or just "I'm Michael. Whatever."

The Jewel-Osco thank-you note is more subtle but also more direct. I'm intrigued, I'm confused, I'm blown away, and the words "thank you" are never used. Good job, Jewel employee.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Let it be, but don't let it end.

For Christmas my brother and sister-in-law gave me the reissued editions of Tim (1985) and Pleased to Meet Me (1987), the Replacements’ first two albums for Sire Records. Exactly 15 years earlier my brother gave me Tim on CD. It’s an album that’s grown on me—when I received it on Christmas Day in ’93 I was disappointed by it in comparison with Pleased to Meet Me.

It wasn’t until 2002, when I read a long article about the band online and listened to all of their albums again, that I realized just how great “Bastards of Young” is. And “Left of the Dial.” And a few years later “Little Mascara” won me over. Even “Dose of Thunder” and “Lay It Down Clown” aren’t bad as far as filler goes. When I first heard Tim, the songs that struck me were “Hold My Life” (“Because I just might lose it ... / Because I just might use it”), “I’ll Buy,” “Waitress in the Sky,” and “Swingin Party,” but that was it. Now I realize it was a terrific big-league debut for the band, proof that their spirit hadn’t been diminished in the transition.

I think they peaked with Let It Be (1984), though. Don’t Tell a Soul (1989) is my sentimental favorite because it’s the first one I heard (naturally, my brother owned it), but Let It Be is the Replacements' best. I listened to it today on my way back to Macon from Athens and was reminded how gosh darn positive it is. But Let It Be doesn’t earn that adjective by peddling false hope or love-will-conquer-all banalities—it does it by being inclusive.

I didn’t grow up working-class in Minnesota like the Replacements did, and I never got fall-down drunk in my 20s, but I do know what it’s like to be lonely, and that’s all you need to connect to the band and all their fans. It’s why almost every song on the album is an anthem, but not in a calculated way—if you’ve ever felt like an outcast or a loser, Paul Westerberg’s lyrics are there to reassure you that you’re not the only one. His lyrics will be instantly memorized and repeated for decades to come, because teen and twentysomething alienation isn't going out of style anytime soon.

Here are two verses from “Sixteen Blue,” inspired by bassist Tommy Stinson, who was only 12 when the band formed in ’79:

Drive your ma to the bank
Tell your pa you got a date
But you’re lying
Now you’re lying
On your back

Your age is the hardest age
Everything drags and drags
You’re looking funny
You ain’t laughing, are you?
Sixteen blue

The melody, Westerberg's vocals, and the band's performance ache right along with the lyrics. Then there’s “Androgynous,” which is more whimsical in nature but just as open-hearted:

Something meets boy and something meets girl
They both look the same, they’re overjoyed in this world
Same hair, revolution
Unisex, evolution
Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?

This is the chorus:

Mirror image, see no damage
See no evil at all
Kewpie dolls and urine stalls
Will be laughed at
The way you’re laughed at now

I saw Westerberg perform “Androgynous” on my 21st birthday, in 1996, when he was touring behind his second solo album, Eventually. He couldn’t remember all the words, so the audience filled in for him, a couple hundred self-diagnosed outcasts and losers helping out their hero the way his songs helped them through the rough patches of adolescence. Moments like that are why I still go to concerts, and no concert since Westerberg's has topped it.

The supposed tension between Westerberg and lead guitarist Bob Stinson, who wasn’t interested in playing the singer’s slower stuff, may have led Westerberg to amp up “Unsatisfied” and “Answering Machine,” two other anthems about romantic frustration and loneliness. Let It Be is the last Replacements album on which Stinson plays a major role; though he’s credited as lead guitarist on Tim, he was reportedly absent from most of the recording sessions, and after the band was finished touring behind the album, he was fired.

It can be argued that Let It Be is a collection of songs rather than a cohesive artistic statement: there’s a nothing-special cover of Kiss’s “Black Diamond,” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got a Boner” are jokes, but at least they're funny and they rock. But you could also argue that teens and twentysomethings are highly contradictory creatures whose moods can turn on a dime, from bleak to silly and back again in the course of a couple minutes. In that respect the various moods of Let It Be are right on target.