Thursday, March 31, 2016

Let's Talk Business

Here's a fun video by the folks at mental floss showing how a number of common words got their start as much hated corporate-talk.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Lucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem (2015)

I really want to like Jonathan Lethem's stories.  I couldn't get into anything from his 2004 collection Men & Cartoons, and I hoped for better luck with Lucky Alan, from which I heard him read excerpts at the 2015 Festival of Books. Of the nine stories in the collection, I'd only feel the need to recommend two: "Their Back Pages" and "The Porn Critic."  The first is a strange story in which a number of invented pre-golden age comic strip characters (a clown, a theater critic, a villain, the king of the phnudges, among others) are stranded on a desert island.  The humor is surprisingly dark, the story is inventive, and it does things I haven't seen before.  The latter is a realistic story of Kromer, a young Manhattanite who gains the reputation of "a Rasputin" or "satyr," eventually becoming the thing he is believed to be.

The problem I have with a lot of Lethem's stories is that, though they often have fascinating imagery, they just feel insincere. They feel like anecdotes that have been told again and again, massaged and perfected, but end up sounding rehearsed.  


Monday, March 28, 2016

Who's the Caboose? (1999) - David Cross #9

First things first, I know I skipped The Thin Pink Line and Can't Stop Dancing.  They seem to be completely unavailable, to the extent that I can't even find a used copy of a DVD on Amazon.  So, for the time being, I'm skipping from #6 to #9.

Director: Sam Seder  
Runtime: 93 Minutes

Who's the Caboose stars Sarah Silverman as Susan, a young stand-up comedian from New York.  A student-filmmaker documentary crew decide to follow her around after their initial subject, a rare fatal disease afflicting the homeless, turns out to be too depressing.  Susan is about to head out to Los Angeles for pilot season, and waits until the night before her flight to tell her boyfriend, Max (writer/director Sam Seder), that she's leaving.  Max follows her out to L.A., where they meet up with her clueless agent (Andy Dick).  Max, a performance artist, constantly complains about how L.A. compares to New York City, before a sleazy entertainment lawyer (H. Jon Benjamin) makes Max the hottest pilot prospect in town.  Max's meteoric rise and fall, Silverman's quest to land a role in a pilot, and the effect on their relationship, make up the rest of the film.

The cast is fantastic, though some of the actors on the poster (Mark Maron and Kathy Griffin) have about a minute of screentime or less.  And honestly, as much as I like most of the comedians in this movie, they're not at their best here.  There were good moments, but overall it seemed like they were trying so hard to be subtle that they ended up suppressing the joke,  And the pacing stalled halfway through, which could be argued to be an artistic decision (Silverman's pilot search hitting a wall mirrored by the story slowing), but I don't think it works overall.  

David Cross plays "Jaded Guy," an actor friend of Max who is disillusioned with Los Angeles and, like Max, spends a lot of time comparing it unfavorably to New York.

Unfortunately, having been unable to find a copy of The Thin Pink Line and Can't Stop Dancing, I don't know if the chain of references between Cross films goes unbroken.  But there is one blink and you missed it reference to an earlier David Cross film:

If you're a die-hard fan of any of the comedians in this film, check it out.  Otherwise you can skip it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A title I'm a bit obsessed with

So I was at a used bookstore and came across a title that I've found weirdly fascinating.

I just can't understand how "Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made" came to be the final choice, for a few reasons.  First, the seeming non-sequitur or the title and subtitle.  "Chasing the Sun" could apply to aviators, astronomers, inventors, explorers, actors, philosophers... but lexicographers?  Putting aside pun titles (like "Penning the Word"), there are a lot of things that would make more sense than "Chasing the Sun."  Secondly, the grandiosity of the title is completely at odds with the matter-of-factness of the subtitle.  Consider a couple other books I have, both from the Oxford History of the US series: "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era" and "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War."  In the latter, the same tone is present in the title and subtitle, In the former, both title and subtitle are six syllables, at least making it flow better.  Following a four syllable grandiose title with a fourteen syllable bland subtitle makes the subtitle seem like a letdown.  Thirdly (and lastly), I feel that specifying "the dictionaries they made" is redundant, mostly due to the verbosity of the subtitle (why not "and their craft?").  I mean, they're dictionary makers. Does anyone think they're going to read about dictionary makers and the wild parties they threw?  

Maybe I'm really overthinking this (I'm definitely overthinking this), but I just can't understand the reasoning behind this title.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Small Soldiers (1998) - David Cross #6

When I mentioned this movie to my brother, he described it as "the first PG-13 VHS our grandma bought for us."  I probably haven't seen this since before I was ten.  The plot is that a toy company puts DoD weapons intelligence chips into toys, one a set of bizarre looking, but kind and cowardly aliens (the Gorgonites), and the Commando Elite, a set of soldiers that tell us what GI Joe would look like with R Crumb as artistic director.

Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) is a troubled teen whose dad owns an old fashioned toy store in a small town.  Alan's watching the store, and convinces the delivery guy to give him a set of the new action figures, despite his dad's ban on "war toys."  He befriends his neighbor's daughter, Christy (Kirsten Dunst), who wants to buy one of the soldier toys for her little brother.  The toys start fighting each other after the store closes, wrecking the place.  It's up to Alan to save the Gorgonites and stop the Commando Elite, whose methods quickly shift into Child's Play territory. 

There are four credited writers, and it shows.  On the one hand, there's the adventure plot of protecting the good toys from the bad toys, which gets way too dark for a PG kids movie, but doesn't allow itself to get as dark as would make sense.  There's an attempt to be overtly political, not only with the bad guys being caricatures of the military, but at one point, the lead soldier, Chip Hazard, stands in front of an American flag puzzle, and starts reciting the opening speech from Patton, quickly descending into a jingoistic mishmash of patriotic quotes (e.g. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but regret that you only have one life to give.")  At other times it tries to take on a cultural obsession with technology, or the rise of corporations over small businesses, etc.  None of these really pan out as well as they could have if the writers stuck to fully developing one theme rather than trying to tackle as many as possible.

If you watched the clip, you may have recognized Tommy Lee Jones' voice.  This movie has a surprisingly high profile cast.  Besides an early in her career Kirsten Dunst, there's Denis Leary and Phil Hartman, with voice work by not only Jones, but Frank Langella, Ernest Borgnine, Bruce Dern, Harry Shearer, George Kennedy, Cristopher Guest, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Christina Ricci.

Also, David Cross is in it.

Cross has a bigger part in this than many of the previous films,like Men in Black, where he had only one scene.  Wait a second.  Small Soldiers is about a group of elite soldiers bent on fighting an alien population, with the soldiers being led by Tommy Lee Jones, which is kind of like Men in Black.  Now that I think about it, there's a daisy chain from all Cross's movies up to this point.

In Destiny Turns on the Radio, he's an agent to a singer named Lucille.  In The Truth About Cats & Dogs, his only line is as a pet owner concerned about his dog, named Lucille.  He only appears on screen briefly, standing next to Bob Odenkirk.  In The Cable Guy, both Janeane Garofalo and Bob Odenkirk have appearances.  Cross's only line in that movie is "Oklahoma," where he's referring to the musical, not the state.  The next movie is Waiting for Guffman, about the production of a musical about small town Missouri, in which Cross plays "UFO Expert," which directly ties in to Men in Black, which ties into Small Soldiers.  

Let's see how far down the rabbit hole this line of reasoning will take us in future reviews/