Tuesday, January 31, 2006

FINAL CUT: Good Night Goes Gently

After a productive visit to Bed, Bath & Beyond, the wife and I wandered over to our old friend, the Landmark Century Cinema. The thought that a movie might be nice did cross the mind, and a flick that interested both of us was on the marquee. But having been foiled in our previous attempt to make our pick the back half of a double feature with Sarah Silverman, we were taking no chances. Good Night, and Good Luck starts in half-an-hour? Let’s motor.

Good Night, and Good Luck is the kind of movie I frequently look forward to. Recent history dramatized, a battle over the ideals of America...it’s the kind of thing I can usually only find in TV movies (Home Box Office, everybody, let's hear it), although every now and then a film like Thirteen Days will do the trick. In fact, one such movie, HBO’s Murrow, touched on this very same subject: namely, CBS news anchor Edward R. Murrow’s efforts to expose the underhanded tactics of anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy. It’s a thrilling story, a David and Goliath tale.

And Good Night, and Good Luck has next to no interest in telling that story.

A film about Murrow's efforts to expose McCarthy for the bully and exploiter that he was would have to deal with the difficulty of swaying public opinion, and the looming fear of communism that gripped the country and allowed the government to stomp on civil liberties without reproach. Aside from a brief opening scroll to set the scene, Good Night, and Good Luck takes it on faith that our heroes are right, the villain is wrong, and proceeds to lay out a case that we've already been sold.

The first indication that there isn't going to be a battle over McCarthy's tactics is the decision to portray the senator using actual film clips of the man in action. In a way, it's a canny choice, because there is a tendency to believe such an outsized character could not have possibly existed. It's a nice tip of the cap to authenticity. But because McCarthy isn't portrayed, but rather inserted, there's no opportunity for him to assert himself as a character, or for his actions to develop as a threat to Murrow and CBS. He's a paper tiger, and his eventual fate is assured.

To be clear, I'm not saying we have to see "the real Joe McCarthy" for balance or anything like that. He just has no dimension, conveys no danger. In college, I was in a playwriting class with a woman who kept writing dull one-acts based on Bible stories. We tried in vain to convince her that the reason her plays were so boring was that we never for a moment doubted that the good guys would win. There was no threat other than what she told us was a threat. We did not succeed in convincing her. Unfortunately, I think she went on to write this.

Actually, the script was turned out by George Clooney (who also directed and co-starred) and Grant Heslov (who produced), and as much as I respect their efforts, it couldn't have been very hard. The movie consists largely of re-enactments of Murrow's See It Now broadcasts, in which he lays out the case against McCarthy. These re-creations are almost bittersweet in the manner in which Murrow bend over backwards to appear unbiased (for example, begging permission to read from a script). But there's not much telling us what went into these progams. Staffers watch film, and hurriedly run around demanding more time for a clip. But as fasr as what anybody on the news staff is thinking about these shows, that remains a mystery.

There are a couple nods to the interior lives of the characters, but they're surprisingly off-point. A subplot concerning the insecure anchor Don Hollenbeck (a waxy Ray Wise) seems designed to suggest that pressures from right-wing ideologues pushed him to the brink, but the idea is given short shrift. There's also the ongoing pressure felt by two reporters, Joe and Shirley Wershba (Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson, two fine actors underused here), but their biggest worry has nothing to do with communism or witch hunts. No, they're worried that their secret marriage (in violation of network policy) will be discovered. In short, they have nothing whatsoever to do with our main story. The film is deliberately wasting our time.

Faring best is David Strathairn, who is forced to provide all of his characterization of Murrow as subtext to his cool, ready-for-broadcast exterior. The performance is all in the little touches, and Strathairn has those down cold. A wryly raised eyebrow at the conclusion of a broadcast says more about Murrow's state of mind than pages of dialogue. A scene of intense discomfort as he stifles his pride to interview Liberace is amusing, and points to a larger theme the film seems to want to tackle.

And what is theme? If Clooney and Heslov aren't interested in the story of how Murrow nabbed McCarthy, then what is their point? In fact, they appear much more concerned with the tale of how strong reporting was shoved out by paranoid advertisers and fickle audiences. That thesis is made evident in the film's framing device, a speech made by Murrow several years later in which he excoriates the television industry for forsaking the public interest. It's a speech of hollow irony, because the bleak television landscape of 1958 sounds exactly like the one we have in 2006.

The struggle for the soul of news is a plot that Good Night, and Good Luck tells much better, and I think that's because of the presence of a strong antagonist in CBS chairman William S. Paley, played with dry majesty by Frank Langella. (Remember when he was in Dracula? Not relevant here. I'm just saying.) In Paley, we get the antagonist we're missing in McCarthy, because we see what Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney) are up against. Paley supports news, and is proud of the department's achievements. But he also finds himself in situations where he can't afford to be principled, and Langella provides the moral complexity the film needs so badly.

And here's where it all falls apart. The only way Murrow can triumph over Paley, in the minds of an audience, is to see how vitally important it is for him to triumph over McCarthy. The two stories are most definitely intertwined. But with no sense of struggle, no feeling for the smallness of Murrow's David and the hugeness of McCarthy's Goliath, then there are no stakes for the showdown with Paley. It's true, you can't have your cake and eat it, too. But you also can't eat it if you never had it.

I’m still struggling with how disappointed I am in this movie. It's beautifully shot in stark black & white. And the era is captured with great care, not least in the copious amounts of cigarette smoke that fill every frame. (The film lingers for a long time on a cigarette commercial, just in case you missed it.) But in the end, after you take away the spot-on re-creations of significant moments in television history, and you take away the musical numbers by Dianne Reeves serving as commentary, you aren't left with much of a movie. Good Night, and Good Luck relies very heavily on its echoes in current events, but it never takes the time to show them as anything more than coincidences. Edward R. Murrow may be a cassandra for our time, but Clooney and Heslov give him little more to say than that the sky is falling. And when you look up, it's a bright, sunshine-y day.

Friday, January 27, 2006

DIAMONDS & HORSEHIDE: Footnotes to History

In previous posts about the Hall of Fame, I've mentioned three elections:

1) the main vote by the Baseball Writers of America, which elected Bruce Sutter
2) a fan vote to select three finalists for the Frick Award for broadcasters, the winner of which will be named near the end of February
3) a third vote, about which I've been curiously cryptic

Let's knock off that third one now.

In 1971, the Hall of Fame created a special committee to select outstanding players from the Negro Leagues for induction. It was a long overdue recognition of the great players who were denied a chance to demonstrate their skill in the major leagues beecause of the ban against black players. The committee responded with nine inductees in seven years, including some of the greatest names in the history of the game, like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Then they closed up shop, leaving the work of identifying the great Negro Leaguers to the Veterans Committee.

The Veterans Committee in those days had a hard enough time dealing with the players who did play in the majors, so it should come as no surprise that they only managed to induct two Negro League legends in 18 years. Meanwhile, the Hall was fast coming to the conclusion that 11 men might not adequately represent the width and breadth of African-American baseball talent prior to Jackie Robinson. So the set aside a special ballot specifically to consider new selections. Seven more Negro Leaguers got plaques. And then they created a whole new Veterans Committee, and the Negro League stars fell into limbo again, left to be footnotes to history.

Now, it's important to note that all of the selections made up to this point were based heavily on reputation. Black baseball was not blessed with especially diligent record-keeping. Partially because of the enforced inferiority of black facilities and infrastructure, partially because the financial success of the black teams depended on barnstorming and exhibitions, and partially because the real value of baseball statistics was still in its infancy. So the people who we came to regard as great were the ones who contemporaries remembered as being great.

And then somebody had a great idea. Weren't there black newspapers in many major cities? Wouldn't they have followed black baseball a little closer than the white papers did?

From this acorn grew a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball to dig up every boxscore and record researchers could get their hands on, to try and get a more complete picture of what Negro League players did on the field. And it all culminates with a brand new Hall of Fame election this year. A committee has been appointed to vote on the merits of 39 candidates on two ballots.

It sounds great.


Part of the fun of following the regular Hall elections is that you can have lengthy debates over the numbers. Stats mean different things to different people. For some people, Jack Morris' 10-inning World Series masterpiece is reason enough to induct the man. For others, a lifetime 3.90 ERA kind of kills the buzz. Not everyone agrees, but the point is that you can discuss it.

By contrast, you can't really discuss the Negro Leagues. My knowledge of the reputation of players like Cristobal Torriente and Biz Mackey tells me that they're Hall of Famers. But I can't back it up. Mine is an uninformed opinion.

The new research is supposed to change that. It will give us real numbers, and therefore a way to say why Dick Redding is better than Ray Brown, or vice versa. But they're not giving us the numbers. And they won't give us the numbers until well after this election. It's kind of a cheat. "Trust us, we're got the evidence." "Great, let's see it." "We're not done with it."

Writers tend to be wrong about this sort of thing, but several are saying that the only two men up for consideration who are still alive -- Minnie Minoso and Buck O'Neil -- are mortal locks. If Pete Rose tuaght us anything, it is that there are no mortal locks. But the questions that comes to mind is, should Minoso and O'Neil have a better shot than Frank Grant or Louis Santop just because they're alive? Would Minoso be elected largely on the basis of his major league career, when the idea is to honor those locked out of the game? Is O'Neil a favorite because of the key role he played as a member of Effa Manley's Kansas City Monarchs, or because he's such a delightful raconteur and advocate for his fellow Negro Leaguers? What are the rules?

There's an additional problem, and it's with the committee. Not the members themselves, but the size. A group of 12 people is going to vote on the immortality of these 38 men and 1 woman (Effa Manley was owner of the fabled Kansas City Monarchs, and will be the first woman ever to be voted on for the Hall of Fame in any capacity). Only 12 people. Bruce Sutter had to corral the support of 390 voters to getIf nine of them agree on any individual, that person gets a plaque. And if nine of them agree on 39 individuals, then the plaque people are going to have a very busy spring.

This is possibly my greatest concern about this whole process. The Hall has given no indication as to whether this is a one-time deal, or whether further elections are in store. So the temptation is to lean in favor of electing everyone with a good case. A lot of these 39 have very good cases. (The Hall is providing short biographies on each of them.) So how many names will join the roll this year? Three? Five? Ten? More? The Hall enshrined a whopping 11 men in 1946. They special committee has the potential to top that this year.

I'm walking a fine line here, because I wholeheartedly support the idea of giving these overlooked players their due. But I don't want them to be recognized just because they were shut out. I want them to be recognized because they were the best who were shut out. And I fear that suddenly adding 20 plaques to the Hall of Fame will not look like honoring. It will look like a quota.

In the 60s, Congress wanted a black astronaut. They hung their hopes on a bomber pilot named Ed Dwight. Unfortunately, Dwight didn't make the cut for Chuck Yeager's school for advanced test piloting. The Air Force put some pressure on Yeager. Yeager said that he always took the top 8, that Dwight was 14th, and it would look like tokenism to take him ahead of seven more qualified pilots. So the powers that be thought it over, and the came up with a solution. For one year, the Advanced Test Pilot School took a class of 14 students, including Ed Dwight.

I hope that the Hall voters will take their job very seriously. I hope that they will elect the very best players they can. And I hope that if they decide to elect 10 players, that they can back it up.

I wonder if Ed Dwight would agree with me. He has a lot to say on the subject. Both as the son of a member of the Kansas City Monarchs, and as the man who became a sculptor and created the statue of Hank Aaron outside Turner Field in Atlanta.

No one is ever really a footnote to history, you see.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: Best Served Cold

I was indifferent to Uma Thurman's turn as a dim-bulb Swedish sexpot in The Producers. Mostly, I think this was because the movie was working overtime to annoy me with its nailed-down approach to cinematography, so I didn't really care about performances. But another factor might be that, only a couple weeks before, I had been watching a very different side of Uma Thurman. Yes, me and the missus had decided to reunite the two halves of her revenge opus, Kill Bill, and watched Volumes 1 & 2 in one sitting. So I probably still had that Uma in my head; the vengeful, violent Uma with the strikingly-unattractive feet.

At the time of its release, much was made of the fact that the film was so unwieldy as a single unit that it had to be split into two separate films. For me, part of the fun was going to be in bringing these separated twins back together. I was always baffled that a local repetory house like the Brew 'n' View didn't make a big deal out of playing them back to back. It seemed like a natural fit. But now that I've put together what was once torn asunder, I can see clearly that the two parts couldn't be more different in tone. In truth, they truly do belong apart. And I'd be willing to bet you that that's what Quentin Tarantino wanted all along.

I wonder what Tarantino would make of the fact that it's taken me so long to mention him. Make no mistake, these movies have his fingerprints all over them. The self-confidence is high, the verbiage is over the top, the language is coarse, and every scene is staged with utter glee. You get the feeling that Tarantino is the kind of guy who has put lots of thought and purpose into every frame, and is just begging you to ask him what he had in mind. This is a double-edged sword. There's no question that he has a look and feel that is unique and exciting. But it becomes very difficult to forget that you're watching a movie. Tarantino is like a five-year old who has just learned a magic trick, and desperately wants you to try and figure out how he did it.

As I said, no one is making movies like Tarantino, as much as they may try. I think what sets him apart is his sheer audacity. Vol. 1 plays like a cartoon (literally, at one point). Is it likely that a dumb hick would be driving a flashy yellow pickup with the words "Pussy Wagon" emblazoned across the tailgate? (Without getting vandalized?) I dunno, but it's pretty funny. Is it likely that the top henchman of a Tokyo crime boss would be a mace-wielding teenage girl in a plaid skirt? Maybe not, but it's pretty cool. Absurdities like this are part of the decoration. They're fun, but they're like goofball roadside attractions that divert you from getting where you really want to go. If ever anybody could do with a stripped down aesthetic, it's Quentin Tarantino.

Here's the thing that eventually sinks the whole effort: we watched Kill Bill almost a month ago, and I've been struggling to figure out what to say about it ever since. The imagery is strong, the choices are bold, the story is clear. And yet, these films have left no tangible memory behind. It's as though Tarantino has made the world's biggest ball of cotton candy. The achievement is impressive and the taste is sweet. But it dissolves in an instant.

Kill Bill is an accomplished work. It relies heavily on Thurman, and she's up to the task. She gets a wide range of emotions to play, which she must balance against the extraordinary amount of physical acting the part demands. To be honest, it's one of the meatiest roles I've ever seen in any kind of movie, action or drama, male or female. When she gets her AFI Lifetime Achievement Award or whatever, clips from Kill Bill should play a prominent role.

Which is what makes it so fascinating to see her actually get to play off other people in Volume 2. Since the first part is primarily about watching Uma kick ass, her exchanges with Vivica A. Fox and Lucy Liu are naturally undersold. (A brief scene with Sonny Chiba is nicely played, though.) It's in the second installment that she really gets to cut loose as an actress. She makes the inherently-ludicrous training sequence with Gordon Liu work beautifully. And her showdown with Daryl Hannah is both a very exciting fight scene and a tense piece of duet acting.

And then there's David Carradine. There can be little doubt that Tarantino wrote the part of Bill especially for the Kung Fu legend, and Carradine doesn't drop the ball. To watch the emotional power that Bill holds over The Bride is to see the kind of potential Tarantino could wield as a storyteller, if only he were willing to kill some of his darlings.

So Kill Bill succeeds in the primary task of providing diverting entertainment. The problem is, when all the smoke has cleared, there's not much there. And you feel like there really should have been. So Tarantino remains as eye-catching as ever. It's now time for him to actually get interesting.

Monday, January 23, 2006

PAGE TURNER: More Human Than Human

My review of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has gone live at the BookADay website. (It's right after Brandi's own review of Spook.) I continue to marvel at Brandi's willingness to share my ravings with the world.

Last year, at some technology convention called NextFest here in Chicago, some enterprising fellows presented a robotic simulacrum of Philip K. Dick himself. This has to rank as one of the creepiest and most blissfully ignorant things I've ever seen in my entire life. As far as I can tell, the whole thing was done without a trace of irony, inputting the man's entire collected works without picking out a single trace of the author's deep unease with the blurring definition of reality. Can there be a stranger fate for a man who lived in fear of discovering that nothing in his experience was real that to be turned into something actually unreal? It's baffling.

In searching for a picture of this oddball creation, I came across a posthumous "interview" with Dick -- another bizarro enterprise, consisting of the interrogator inserting his questions into a pre-existing recording of the author. More fake-real Philip Dick. (No wonder he was so confused.) But I was struck by one of Dick's comments, ostensibly concerning the rise of virtual reality as a popular medium. He says:

The bombardment of pseudorealities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly. Fake realities will create fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad's Wild Ride -- you can have all of them, but none is true.

And that's what we have here. A fake human, based on the person who was most concerned about fake humans. You have to ask yourself: what's the point? The people who run his estate are calling it art, but it strikes me as almost perverse. With almost anyone else, I probably wouldn't be so bothered. After all, I enjoy the robot Lincoln. But I don't question the motives of Lincoln's creators. They want to show you Lincoln giving a speech, because you never got to see that. And Lincoln doesn't recognize you or respond to questions. It's a play, starring a machine. But the Dick robot is clearly intended to "think" and interact in the manner of the person it's designed to resemble. And that person wrote books about the dangers inherent in being unable to tell the difference between real people and clever copies.

Dick liked to appear as a character in his own novels. It's hard not to think that we're now all appearing with him in his grandest and most paranoid work of all.

Friday, January 20, 2006

FINAL CUT / RED ENVELOPES: The Once and Future King

Why is it that two hours seems like a reasonable length of time, but three hours seems like an eternity? It's uncanny. A dinner, a plane flight, you name it. Add an hour, and it's like you added a week.

Perhaps this explains why it took so long to generate the proper enthusiasm to go see King Kong. Anybody I asked, they said it was definitely a must-see. A bunch of us contemplated a post-show outing to enjoy Peter Jackson's latest epic. But the film's duration had preceded it: three hours. It sat like a heavy meal, and turned the enthusiastic into the beleaguered.

(Approximation of an actual conversation at dinner a few weeks back. The last line is a direct transcript.

SOMEONE: You wanna see King Kong?
JASON: No. Who wants to watch a movie for three hours?
PADRAIC: Yes, when has Peter Jackson ever managed to entertain us for three hours?

It really does defy logic.)

Which is why it's such a joy to report that, once we cleared the space in our calendar to accommodate King Kong, the time just sped by. It's a fantastic film. Perhaps most impressive is that it manages to be faithful to the original, yet improve upon it in almost every way.

To watch the original King Kong is to see a film that succeeds almost in spite of itself. The 1933 version has a difficult time holding up for today's audiences. The special effects, though primitive by today's standards, are still remarkably effective, such as when a model Kong lifts up a log bearing several real-life sailors. A little tougher to take is the stylized acting, led by Fay Wray (fine, but in a helpless role), Robert Armstrong (essentially a carnival barker), and Bruce Cabot (useless, especially in his hilarious reading of the line, "I guess I love you"). Worst of all is the unavoidable cultural imperialism of the time. You could call it racism, I suppose. But it's really just a sense of people (yes, white people) thinking they know more than others. It's definitely a product of its time.

And yet the film still works incredibly well. Most of the credit belongs to Kong himself, an incredibly sympathetic character who overcomes every manner of indignity. You can tell that the filmmakers, led by directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, think they're making a monster movie. And Kong is quite the monster, killing any number of island natives or hapless New Yorkers. But while Kong is destructive, he's far from a mindless killing machine. No, he's flesh and blood, which is literally demonstrated to us when Cabot stabs his finger with a knife, and Kong looks at his wounded hand in anguish and surprise. Kong has very expressive eyes, and they are the window to Kong's innocent, childlike soul. A child prone to violent tantrums, true, but still a sweet, very confused child.

Peter Jackson knows that the secret to King Kong is the title character, so it's no surprise that he turns to the same team that made Gollum in The Lord of the Rings such a success: his brilliant special effects team and actor Andy Serkis. The new Kong is a majestic creature, capable of great tenderness with the girl he adores (sad-eyed Naomi Watts), as well as thunderous violence with a vicious Tyrannosaurus Rex. He remains the center of attention, and I would contend that it's impossible not to be moved by his inevitable fate.

What makes the new version special is the way Jackson has upped the ante in every other element of the story. Jack Black, for example, lends an element of megalomania to the part of Carl Denham, who was previously a confident exploiter of nature. Watts and Adrien Brody carry off a convincing romance, as compared to the love of convenience in the original script. And Watts' character of Ann Darrow is given real heart which necessitates the biggest change in the new script (the reason for Kong's Manhattan rampage). The previous Kong was a great entertainment, but the new one is a thoroughly-imagined experience.

This isn't to say that it couldn't have done with a little more editing. Chase scenes grow particularly wearying, especially a lengthy scene best described as "Pamplona with dinosaurs". I think Jackson means well, hoping to show the extreme hardship or danger of a situation, but it can get a bit much. Maybe the film could have been 2:45. But the expanded storytelling provides a fullness that I would not trade.

To get a feel for how much Jackson reveres to original, look no further than the Special Features disc in the King Kong DVD set. A lengthy documentary (produced by Jackson's company) affirm's the film's role as one of the first special effects blockbusters, and goes to great length to praise the groundbreaking work of special effects designer Willis O'Brien and composer Max Steiner. The case is strong that everytime you go see a July 4 movie spectacular, you owe a debt to Kong. But that's not enough, and shows why Jackson is one of the most wonderfully odd people in the movies today. A significant portion of the documentary is devoted to Jackson's efforts to re-create the long-lost spider pit sequence. We see a remarkable number of man-hours poured into research and construction on a scene which is only intended as a tribute, and which only appears on this bonus disc. (And all this while he was rushing to finish his actual film.) It's a fantastic stunt, the act of a film geek given the tools to do whatever he wants. Every filmmaker should hope to be adored in such a fashion.

To enjoy King Kong -- 1933 original, documentary analysis, and 2005 remake -- is a lengthy undertaking. If you're concerned about time, then yes, you could find a two-hour movie that would take less of it. And you'd have a lesser experience, to be sure. So stop complaining and just go see the movie. It'll remind you of why you like going to movies in the first place.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

THE DAMNED HUMAN RACE: An Open Letter to Osama bin Laden

Dear Mr. bin Laden,

Thanks for your latest message, which you dropped off with the offices of al-Jazeera. It's nice to know you're still alive out there. It means that we haven't been denied the satisfaction of killing you ourselves yet.

I'm sorry. That's a hostile beginning. You're hardly likely to listen to anything that starts out so threatening. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, and realize that I only lash out in such an unconstructive manner because you're a colossal jag.

Look, I'm reading over the transcript of the tape you made about a month ago. The CIA has confirmed it's really you. In it, you announce that you're planning more attacks on the United States. But then you turn around and suggest a truce "with fair conditions." It's all very diplomatic of you.

Couple problems right off the bat. First off, the part about planning more attacks? Doesn't really make us likely to do business with you. We don't like being threatened, we don't like being made to fear for our lives or the lives of our loved ones, and we don't like bargaining wth a knife over our heads. We Americans are very particular about these things. Look, when football players holdout for a better contract, we take the side of the owners. You're on the wrong side of a bad tactic.

Second, when you force somebody to do something by threatening them, that's called extortion. That's a criminal act. So your "fair conditions" are predicated on something illegal. Hard to take an offer like that seriously.

But let's get to the real meat of this letter of yours. You've directed this to me and my friends, the American people, because "an overwhelming majority of you want the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq but (Bush) opposed that desire."

I see what you're trying to do. You've been watching the news, reading the papers, renting Fahrenheit 9/11 from Netflix. You've decided that enough of us hate our president so much, we'll thwart his policies if we think it's going to save us from another bomb. I gotcha. Foment dissent. Clever plan.

Only it doesn't work. You know this guy Saddam Hussein, who we seem convinced is a close personal friend of yours? He thought the same thing about America. He was dead certain that we weren't going to attack him. He watched C-SPAN, and he saw Congress bicker and argue, and he was positive that we would never get a consensus to attack Iraq.

That was in 1990. We got it together just fine.

But it's so simple, you say. "If I were president, I would stop the attacks on the United States: First I would apologize to all the widows and orphans and those who were tortured. Then I would announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended."

Okay, huge problem with that. First of all, I don't recall any apologies to the widows and orphans of the passengers on four airplanes, or the workers in three office buildings. I don't believe you sent a condolence cards to the families of train passengers in Spain, or clubgoers in Bali. You've been awfully silent on that issue.

Second, let me take you back to September 10, 2001. There was no American interference in Iraq. We didn't like Saddam Hussein, but we didn't like Castro, either. We just snarled at them. And there was no interference in Afghanistan. You may recall, we sat by and watched as your friends in the Taliban blew up two enormous statues of Buddha. We weren't happy about it, but we looked the other way. So if you have a problem with American interference, I'd recommend dusting off a mirror. That's where you'll find the instigator.

I'll admit, you openly acknowledge that there's a trust issue. Why should we even consider this offer of yours? Very simple, you say. "We are a nation that God has forbidden to lie and cheat."

A, you're not a nation. You're a rich guy in a cave. And B, the lying isn't our biggest gripe. It's the killing. It's the bombing. It's the fact that you're a coward, and that you have no honor. That's where we really trip up on the whole trust thing.

Osama, here's the thing you absolutely have failed to grasp, and it's very important. We are a diverse country. We come from different backgrounds, have different interests, and hold wildly different beliefs. But if there is one thing we are united on, if there is one thing that the mass of Americans set aside their differences, come together and speak as one, it is that we despise you, sir, with a hate that could melt iron. Me and George Bush, when the day comes that we sit down to share some tasty barbecued brisket, we will have one thing that we can talk about without coming to blows, and that is how much we hate your guts. You're the ultimate uniter.

Look, when our President wants to generate support for his little excursion into Iraq, he couldn't ask for a better PR splash than to have you pop out of your hole and insist that we should leave now. We're ornery, and we will not give you the time of day. If you said that we could prevent more terrorist attacks by eating more meat, McDonald's would go out of business tomorrow. You, sir, are a disgusting piece of filth, and by continually baiting us, all you do is stoke the fire.

And I'll bet that's what you have in mind.

So this is my simple, humble request to you, Osama bin Laden. Shut up. Just shut the hell up. You've done quite enough. All you really want is hate and misery, and you get it everytime you open your cursed mouth. I say this to you as a person who believes in peace, who opposes the death penalty, and who prefers to take spiders outside rather than crushing them. And as such a person, I can assure you that if I were given the opportunity to push the button that ended your life, I'd do it. And that's only if I got picked ahead of the 200 million other Americans who called dibs.

So shut up. Say nothing. Do nothing. Just get caught. Get apprehended by some brave Marine, and face the judgment of the world, and vanish from the realm of human existence. That's how you can best serve the planet.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely yours,
Shane Wilson

Monday, January 16, 2006

DIAMONDS & HORSEHIDE: Call to the Bullpen

In the midst of the mess that was last week, the folks at the Baseball Hall of Fame had their annual election, and bestowed immortality and a lovely bronze plaque upon Bruce Sutter. He was the only player elected by the writers this year.

As some of you may recall, Sutter was one of the four candidates I supported this year. The writers typically induct one or two players a year, so I'm fairly pleased. Heck, I had a nagging suspicion that they wouldn't elect anyone at all, so in many ways, this year's election was a rousing success. As I clicked on the Hall's website to see the results, I muttered to myself, "Come on, guys. Pick somebody." So, like I said, they managed that much.

Of course, there's already a bit of controversy, because Sutter is not really the best relief pitcher on the ballot. I'd say that honor belongs to Goose Gossage, whose vote total increased significantly, and who ended up a single vote behind second-place finisher Jim Rice. The question that some are asking is, how could you vote for Sutter and not Gossage? At least 36 voters did, and that's a little screwy. Not as screwy as the one guy who voted for Walt Weiss, but still.

You have to feel for Goose. For nine years, reporters have called him up every year and asked him how he feels about not being in the Hall of Fame. It has to rankle. Even if he didn't think he belonged -- and he most certainly does think that -- it still must feel like poking at an open sore. And since he's not a "don't cry out loud" kind of guy, it's not surprising that he would get vocally upset about the process. Which he has.

But anybody who thought he was going to get elected this year just doesn't understand how the Hall of Fame works. There are a few different types of candidates: those who are obvious and get elected immediately, those who are widely appreciated but who need a few years to build a consensus, those who have a core of supporters that never really grow, and those who no one supports and who fall off right away. Gossage looks like a Type 2, and his case has built up slowly but surely over the years. I compare it to a jury. You don't usually get a unanimous verdict on the first vote, and the jury has to spend some time debating the merits of the case. If the guy is guilty, he's guilty. He doesn't get any less guilty just because it took the jury a week to deliberate.

There may be something weird going on, too, that will help Gossage's case. Sutter has been on the ballot a remarkable 13 years. Now, it may very well be that some voters will only support one relief pitcher at a time, and since Sutter was there first, he's had dibs. So with Sutter out of the way, does that mean Gossage's support will increase significantly next year? It certainly could.

Next year promises to be very difficult for any of the backlog candidates, thanks to the influx of Type 1 candidates. Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn join the ballot, and they're almost certain to be picked on the first ballot. The reason I say "almost certain" is because of one of the other new names on the ballot: Mark McGwire. Writers are already wringing their hands about his series of non-answers at the congressional hearing on steroids. Personally, I'd vote for him. Lots of guys on steroids never accomplished as much as McGwire (*ahem*JoseCanseco*ahem*). But a backlash is shaping up, so his chances have gone from "certain" to "oh boy". Meaning nothing is ever certain, and if we find out that either Ripken or Gwynn like to eat babies, that could hurt them at the polls.

Of course, the other thing the writers are doing is claiming the Sutter is going in alone. That's not going to be true, because there's one more chance to hand out plaques this year. That's the third vote I once mentioned, and that's a subject for a future discussion...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

MY BONNIE: Second Verse

I will be gone for the weekend, so this seems like a good time to introduce the second chapter of Dead Men Are a Girl's Best Friend, in which our heroine gets a new case.

Bonnie's adventures are set in Camden, New Jersey, which is my father's hometown. It is no coincidence that this is where my grandparents lived for quite some time (my grandfather worked for RCA), so this serves as a further tip of the cap to them.

I once hit up Grandmom for some information about life during wartime in Camden. You'll find that sprinkled throughout as we move along.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Miss Jo

My grandmother passed away on Monday morning. She died at home, peacefully, surrounded by her children. She was two months shy of her 88th birthday.

My grandmother was a very content woman. She was a devout Catholic. (I learned not too long ago that my grandfather converted so that he could marry her.) She lived in the same house for over four decades. She liked to eat at Denny's, and particularly liked to claim her senior citizen's discount. (I think that amused her. "I get a cheaper meal just because I'm old? Well, okay.") You probably couldn't say she lived life to the fullest, but she lived it as fully as she wanted to.

She traveled frequently. (Very frequently. We often joked that if you the worst place to try and call her was at home.) I don't think she necessarily enjoyed the traveling part. She wasn't an adventurer. But she liked to be in a new place, and see what there was to see. And she liked to visit people. The past couple years weren't much fun for her, I don't think. She liked her home, but she liked the freedom to come and go as she pleased.

She was one of three sisters, and you could tell that she was the strongest. Her sister Eleanor was a friendly woman, but a little meek. And her sister Gert was kind of a homebody. But Josephine was quiet and determined, and did whatever she wanted to do.

You would have gotten the best sense of my grandmother from seeing how she dealt with her family. She must have wondered how she got stuck with a batch of progeny like us. We have some screw-ups, we're not an especially religious bunch, we often do what feels good instead of making a bit of a sacrifice and doing what's best for us. In short, we really don't live life the way she did. But she would talk about her family with a sense of pride anyway. That way you do when you're talking about family, because they may not be perfect, but they're yours, and that's what you've got, and you'll stick with it to the end. Many a tale of my Uncle Steve's self-destructive exploits (and there are many such tales) would end with a kind of shrug, as if to say, "What're you gonna do?" She loved us in spite of ourselves.

What we unquestionably carried on from her is the funny. My grandmother had strong opinions about things, but she was brought up to keep those opinions to herself. Nevertheless, sometimes she just couldn't help herself, and she would let her feelings slip out in a quiet but wickedly funny comment. We're a family who jokes and laughs, and that came from the top. So much so that my aunt had to explain to my grandmother's nurses that no one was being irreverent when they laughed around her hospital bed. "We're a laughing family," she said. That's a pretty good legacy.

One of my favorite story about my grandmother involves my father's introduction to Catholic school. My dad was the second-born, and was preceded in school by my Uncle Steve, who was evidently something of a hellion. The nuns at the school decided that bad behavior must run in the family, and though my father could not have been of a more different disposition, they were merciless. My grandmother, learning that my dad was getting a hard time at school from the teachers, for crying out loud, she went down and gave them what for. "Joe is not Steve," she said, "and if you want to rap my son on the knuckles, I'll just give you a rap on the knuckles."

I like that image of my grandmother. Standing up to nuns.

My grandmother had a backyard pool, which is great for a visiting 9-year old. Swimming in that pool one night, she and my Aunt El taught me the song "Harvest Moon." I find that I tend to associate certain songs with people, and this is hers. I don't think we quite got the lyrics right, but for once, I don't care, because this is how we sang it. So I'm proud to offer another chorus. For her.

Shine on, shine on harvest moon
Up in the sky,
I ain't had no luck
Since January, February, June or July
Snow time ain't no time to stay
Outside and swoon,
So shine on, shine on harvest moon,
For me and my gal.

Josephine S. "Miss Jo" Wilson

Monday, January 09, 2006

PAGE TURNER: Split Second Decisions

I'm delighted to report that the BookADay website has come out of hiatus. I'm even more pleased to see that my review of Blink has gone live. And I'm a little embarrassed because Brandi's first post back talks at great length about me. Oh, don't get me wrong. I'm a glory hound. But I try not to be a self-promoting glory hound. So a hearty welcome back to the BookADay team, and if you must read about me, just skip to the review.

On the subject of Blink, one of the examples that author Malcolm Gladwell uses to demonstrate experts making successful snap decisions if the story of a singer/songwriter named Kenna. Self-taught, Kenna doesn't have a particular format or genre into which he readily fits. A review at PopMatters.com called him "new-hip-wave-synth-hop." But industry experts who heard his songs and saw him in concert immediately declared that Kenna was the next big thing. Label managers who heard his demo would insist, "Sign him!" Everything looked promising for Kenna.

Until he fell into the hands of market research. Quite simply, Kenna tested poorly. Audiences who heard a 20-second snippet of a Kenna song were put off by the fact that it didn't have an immediately familiar sound. Because market research said Kenna wouldn't fly, radio stations wouldn't play his songs. Basically, Kenna is the poster child for an industry that no longer trusts its own instinct. If you wonder why our movies and TV shows and popular music is so uniformly poor, it's because statistics have been misused to marginalize the unusual. If market research dictated what you had for lunch, you'd only ever have a chicken sandwich. With no mustard.

Anyway, after I'd had access to iTunes for a while, it occurred to me that I could actually listen to some Kenna. Decide for myself. So I looked it up, and sure enough, there was his album, New Sacred Cow. So I listened to a few snippets. And my reaction? Not all that impressed.

Still, I did keep coming back to the title track, so my wife suggested that it wouldn't hurt to plunk down a dollar to buy it, and that would at least remind me to go back and listen to the other tracks again. So that's what I did, and we listened to the entire cut. And my reaction? This is a great song.

"New Sacred Cow" now sits in the #3 slot on our "Top 25 Most Played" playlist, behind a Christmas song and some electronica song that my wife likes that was in a car commercial. I think it's only a matter of time before it moves into 1st. And I was feeling really proud of myself for being better than market research. So I told this story to my Whirled News Tonight colleague Marla. And she pointed out that I hadn't liked the other songs enough to download them based on a 30-second snippet. I had made a judgment based on what was familiar to me, and only one song made the cut. "You did exactly what Blink said you would do," she said.

Of course, she was absolutely right. My inexpert ear had nearly condemned Kenna to my personal musical oblivion. If market research had come to me, I'd have given them answers that really weren't very informed at all.

Clearly, my judgment is not as dependable as I had hoped.

Thursday, January 05, 2006



The good kind of shaking. Awesome rollercoaster. First kiss. Won the lottery. That kind.

My friend Holly was shaking. Her text message read, "I'm so excited I'm shaking."

Bill Simmons, my favorite online sports columnist was shaking. In his running diary, he wrote, "I'm shaking and I don't even have money on this game."

Oh, and I was shaking. Finally, desperate to release the energy, I yelped so loud that my wife woke up, thinking I had set myself on fire. No, really. "I thought you burned yourself," she said.

We're all talking about a college football game, and the fact that I'm even in on the conversation is downright astonishing.

The game in question is last night's Rose Bowl, which featured top-ranked Southern California taking on my alma mater, Texas, in a game to decide the college football national championship. Normally, I couldn't care less about the college football national championship, but Texas being in contention is such a rare event that even I was compelled to sit up and take notice.

I'm not a fan of college football. I've only ever attended two contests of the Texas Longhorns: once before I went to school there, and once after. Whilst I was matriculating, I avoided it like the plague.

Why? Let's just go ahead and call it snobbery. I was happy to attend basketball games or baseball games. I even served proudly as a play-by-play commentator for the champion women's volleyball team. (Tesa Brown and I may not have been the A team, but when the time came clinch the conference title, we were there.) But the football always put me off, and I think it was the football fans. Students are notoriously obnoxious, and proud of it. They lined up in the wee hours for every contest. They bought tasteless T-shirts with a copyright-infringing Calvin relieving himself on whoever that week's opponent was. They enthusiastically waved the banner of conformity, and I hated every bit of it. So I stayed away.

But there's a peculiar loyalty that comes with attending college. No matter that I'm 1200 miles from campus, I'm still hoping for my school to fare well. More than a professional team, which hires the best people it can find and will gladly pull up stakes if greener pastures lie elsewhere, a school's team is inextricably linked to its location. The players are walking the same grounds you did. They're getting the same diploma you got. (In theory.) I was never part of the Chicago White Sox. But I was definitely part of the Texas Longhorns. With them, I get to yell "We Won!", and it's not entirely false.

Strangely for a school that instructs about 48,000 people at any given time, Texas has a bit of an underdog status. When it comes to football, they haven't won a championship in my lifetime. They usually get stuck going to some crappy bowl game like the Freedom Bowl. Which they lose. And they have a knack of losing the really important games. The best showing the Longhorns managed during my time there was a 10-1 record, a conference title and a berth in the Cotton Bowl opposite Miami. They proceeded to cough up the game right from the opening kickoff, eventually losing by a score of something like 51-3. It was disheartening.

Something funny happened last year, though, when Texas managed to snag an invitation to the Rose Bowl to play Michigan (despite the fact that California probably deserved to go instead). I watched the game in snippets, and everytime I tuned in, the Horns managed to cough up the lead. It all came down to the very end, when Jordan Klepper and I were staring through a bar window before a show, and I was on pins and needles wondering if we might actually pull this out. When we finally emerged victorious, Jordan just shook his head at me. "You don't understand," I said. "We never win this game."

Given that track record, I guess it was inevitable that the Longhorns would garner very little respect going into the title game. USC was looking to repeat at champion (some would say three-peat, which would be clever if it weren't for a little thing called LSU in 2004), and pundits were debating the Trojans' place among the greatest teams of all-time. I suppose it was easy to forget that there was still the actual game to be played before the coronation.

In classic Texas fashion, it was a brutal game to watch. USC took the lead, then Texas got on the board, and then scored two more times in rapid succession. A missed extra point, a missed field goal, constant fumbling...all adding to the agony. Plus, I got to see the Trojans' star rusher Reggie Bush for the first time. The man just plowed through the defensive line. By the middle of the fourth quarter, with Texas down by 12, I was pretty close to despair. I wanted Texas to win. I wanted everyone else to be wrong about USC. And I was not going to get my wish.

But all along, there was Vince Young.

In any great game, no matter the sport, there always seems to come a moment when somebody steps forward and says, "Screw it. I'll do this myself." In the 1991 World Series, Kirby Puckett locked up his spot in the Hall of Fame when he told his fellow Twins, "Hop on my back. I'm taking you to the promised land."

There's no doubt: this is what Vince Young said. He threw and almost never missed. He ran and the defense could do nothing to stop him. He would end up with 265 yards passing and 200 yards rushing. He was going to do it all, and he certainly wasn't going to let one of the greatest teams in the history of the game stand in his way. It was truly an awesome sight. I'm getting a shiver just thinking about it.

With 15 yards, four downs, a minute and a half, and five points to go, it all came down to Vince Young. And as he threw away the first three downs, I got to that moment that you so rarely experience as a sports fan, where you actually believe that the outcome of the next few seconds will determine whether you live or die. It's an excruciating, exhilirating feeling. This was my alma mater, my school, a part of my identity, and it was inches away from greatness. Holly and Bill Simmons and me, we were shaking because we were living a moment on the edge of a knife.

So of course I yelped when Vince Young decided to keep the ball himself and ran in for the touchdown. In an instant, everything went right. A "holy crap" moment if there ever was one.

This doesn't make me into a college football fan or anything. We'll be back in the Holiday Bowl or something in a few years. And I still think these huge throngs of fans marching in lockstep are just plain scary. (I'm looking at you, Notre Dame.) But I am going to savor this moment for a while. It was a great sports moment. It was a great Texas moment. And it was a moment made for shaking.

Hook 'em.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: It's What's For Dinner...And Lunch...And Dinner Again Tomorrow...

It was really Alex's fault. He's the one who said he was getting a bunch of people together to go to Fogo de Chao the day after New Year's. You see? I never would have gone if he hadn't made the invitation.

Fogo de Chao, for those not in the know, is the foremost example of a quiet little trend in modern cuisine called the Brazilian steakhouse. For a flat fee, you sit down and watch as a variety of cuts of beef (with occasional cameos by other seared meat) are paraded around the room on enormous sword-like skewers by men and women in gaucho pants. You are welcome to sample as much of this as you can handle, and you signal that you are ready to ingest more by turning a card on your table from red to green. It is, quite literally, a Parade of Meat. Needless to say, in our health-conscious culture, the Brazilian steakhouse is an enormous hit.

This was not my first exposure to the concept. Last Christmas, I was taken to one of a different chain outside Fort Worth. (For the record, aside from names there is no appreciable difference between Brazilian steakhouses.) Thinking about that for a moment, there's clearly a segment of my brain that completely shuts off with regard to eating copious amounts of food during the holidays. Everything about this proposal screamed "bad idea." So naturally, my response to Alex's invitation was, "That sounds fantastic!" My brain's card must be perpetually on green.

There were eleven of us who descended upon Fogo de Chao on a cool, damp Monday afternoon, and we most definitely did not have the place to ourselves. Packed, I tell you. What the hell are we all thinking? Why are we all gorging at the end of the holidays? Is it just Christmastime? Are there other special occasions when people decide they'd like to eat steak for three straight hours? I'm all questions.

I think the Brazilian steakhouse plays into the natural competitiveness of Americans. We like to get a deal, and we like to get a better deal than everyone else. As I said, it's a flat fee for a neverending plate of meat, so in essence, we're all trying to eat more meat than we're paying for. Somehow, we're going to turn a profit on this lunch. Only Padraic and Megan actually admitted to this strategy, but we were all thinking it, I'm sure. Never mind that the restaurant just made at least thirty bucks off of each of us, so this is a little like deficit spending. Anyway, once you're committed to beating the restaurant, you have to strategize at every turn. Because the restaurant is crafty, and wants to foil you at every turn.

Take the self-serve salad bar, for example. It's a very generous spread of vegetables, with copious amounts of cheese, and even a few thinly-sliced meats. Someone called them "sucker meats". Because we're not surrendering precious stomach space to lettuce and smoked salmon, dammit. We're here for beef!

Or the bread. Padraic said it before we had even taken our seats: "The bread is a trap." And we all knew this instinctively, for who among us has not gorged on an entire French loaf waiting for the entrée to come, only to find themselves stuffed to the gills. Oh, we know about the bread. But at Fogo de Chao, it's a brilliantly conceived trap. The rolls are tiny, like mini-muffins, and I swear that each is injected with a pat of butter. They're decadent, and because they're small, they look like they could hardly do damage. In fact, they are spring-loaded, waiting to fill up your entire stomach and leave precious little room for the beef that has brought us here.

(Side note: I just now realized that I don't actually know the proper spelling of "pat of butter". It could be "pad of butter". Evidently, I've never written that phrase down before. I googled it, and both versions came up. So there may not be a consensus on the matter. Weird.)

If you can dodge these bullets, then you're ready to turn your card green and make with the gluttony. Most of your choices are cuts of sirloin, which have special Portuguese names, but they seem to have given up long ago and settled for simple descriptions like "top sirloin" or "bottom sirloin". There's also filet mignon, which is never what you expect, because it isn't a little filet. It's a big steak straight off the spit, friends. It's quite a sight, seeing some guy walk up to you with a slab of beef the size of his arm and sawing off a thin slice for your enjoyment. Sawing off the beef, that is. Not his arm.

To break up the monotony, you can also get your meat in pre-sliced portions. For example, the leg of lamb also comes as lamb chops. Or the beef and pork loin are available to you as ribs. It's nice, because it makes you feel like you're eating something different, even though it's really the same beef, pork, and lamb. Another way to spice it up is with embellishment. Both the filet mignon and chicken breast came in small chunks wrapped in bacon. For when eating one meat at a time is not enough. And then came Fogo de Chao's masterstroke. The true apex of the dining experience.

"What's that?" I said to the gaucho with the skewer of meat cubes covered in some sort of powder.

"Parmesan-crusted beef."

This was the pinnacle. I'd eaten beef. I'd eaten beef wrapped in bacon. Now, I was being offered the chance to chow down on beef coated in cheese. My journey to the dark side was complete. "Oh, hell, yes," I said. Alex's brother also wanted to know what fresh hell this was. I told him, and he flipped his card from red to green faster than if it would deactivate a bomb. We were all going to clog our arteries, and we were not going to wait any longer than we had to.

In a final burst of inspired cruelty, the Fogo folks offer dessert with a twist. They recommend some sort of papaya cream, which they insist contains "enzymes" that will assist in the digestion process. If you're not dead at this point, you're probably willing to do anything to aid the digestion process. "Drano? Sure, why not?" I was determined to carry though the abuse of my body to its logical conclusion, so I went with a gelato. Jen outdid me, though, opting for the chocolate flourless cake, which I couldn't even believe was on the menu. It's like taking C-4 to a dynamite convention.

Nearly three hours later, we staggered out into the mist. Some people were driving, and I pitied them, because I knew the food coma would force them off the road within ten minutes. But we all shared something that day. We knew, despite the fact that we had done immense damage to ourselves and paid for the privilege, that we had beaten a chain of Brazilian steakhouses. We knew that we had brought another holiday season, one based on nothing but eating, to a successful close. And most importantly, we knew that we would never ever do something so remarkably stupid again.

Next time you're in town, we should go.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

FINAL CUT: Germany Was Having Trouble

I remember it quite vividly: it was Valentine's Day, 2001, and my future fiancée had decided that we should celebrate with a show. So there we were, waiting in the lobby of the Cadillac Palace Theater, hoping for that most unlikely of circumstances: that someone would give up their tickets, and we would get in to see the pre-Broadway run of a new musical starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick called The Producers.

The love of my life is many things, and blessed with amazing ticket karma is one of them. So not only did we get the last two seats in the auditorium, but we plunked down in the fourth row, mere inches away from one of the greatest theatrical surprises of my life. I was quite familiar with the original Mel Brooks film, and while that was of course a very funny film, I had a healthy skepticism about the chances a musical adaptation would do anything but make one long for the movie. So very, very wrong was I. The score (by Brooks, remarkably enough) was enjoyable, the laughter hardly ever stopped, and in many respects, the stage version improved upon its source. (Moving the action back a decade, for example, to tie in more closely to Broadway's heyday and eliminate the cheesier elements of the late sixties.) Most importantly, the show's signature number, "Springtime For Hitler," positively soared onstage. It was was tremendous glee that I called up my friend Ted, who had already bought tickets for the New York run, and said something I had always wanted to say about a stage show: "It's gonna be a smash."

December 30, 2005 will probably not linger quite so long in my memory. I had high hopes as I settled into a seat -- fourth row, natch -- to see how The Producers had returned to the silver screen once more. A spate of poor reviews had diminished my optimism, but I figured that could work in the film's favor. Lowered expectations had done wonders the last time. And as the opening shot, a gorgeous, sweeping re-creation of 1950s Times Square, unspooled before me, my hopes began to rise.

They never got that high again.

To be fair, I'll venture that putting The Producers on screen is an idea that can't fail completely, for the simple reason that the basic material is too strong to flop. The basic premise about unscrupulous producers purposely putting on the biggest flop in Broadway history is amusing. That the flop in question will be a frothy musical comedy dedicated to Adolf Hitler is joyfully tasteless. And casting Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as your leads ensures that there will be no shortage of talent at your disposal. Throw in Uma Thurman as your brainless bimbo and Will Ferrell as a crazy Nazi, and all the pieces should be in place. It takes real skill to squander all this good fortune.

And who has such destructive skill? I take no pleasure in saying that the blame has to lie squarely at the feet of one individual: director Susan Stroman. An extremely talented choreographer and inventive director, I've had the chance to see her stagework several times, including the exuberant Crazy For You and a less-successful but cleverly-staged version of The Frogs. I mention all this to try and explain how baffled I was by the flatness, the blandness, the gracelessness of this movie. Look at that last word. Movie. Implicit in those five letters is the crucial command "move." A movie must move, and this one stands defiantly still. It's shocking, and the film sinks like a stone as a result.

The best example of this comes in Lane's big number "Betrayed", a musical recap of the show so far. It's a tour de force piece, allowing Lane to prowl the stage and ply his shtick even though he's confined to a jail cell. Now, this is a hurdle to overcome if you want to make the scene film-worthy, but it can be done. In West Side Story, Richard Beymer never leaves an alley to sing "Something's Coming." Rick Moranis is stuck in a room with a puppet in Little Shop of Horrors. Heck, Kermit the Frog never budges from a log in a swamp in the opening of The Muppet Movie. So where does Lane go in "Betrayed"? NOWHERE! WE DON'T GO ANYWHERE! And this isn't a nod to realism, since the bars of his cell sport marquee lights. It's just uninspired, unimaginative.

The movie is filled with such moments, when you beg the film to fly or jog or just freaking MOVE, and it sits stubbornly in one place. Even in those rare moments when we get out and about, The Producers is strangely inert. A dance number for hundreds of little old ladies consists of a series of static shots. Scenes in Broadway's fabled Shubert Alley confine themselves to a single angle. Frankly, that opening shot of Times Square is as ambitious as the movie ever gets. Have you ever heard the critic's line where they say, "He directs the film like he's never seen a movie before"? Well, don't be surprised if you hear it here, because The Producers lacks even the most basic cinematic eye. No matter what you thought of Chicago, you can't deny that Rob Marshall had at least sat behind a camera before he created his superb adaptation of that show. Wasn't there anyone around to give Stroman a helping hand? Even Mel Brooks. The man's not known for being a supreme visualist, but even Robin Hood: Men In Tights didn't look this stilted.

An interesting sidelight, to go back to the earlier discussion of the stage version. I wasn't lying about how great it was at the Cadillac Palace. It killed. But you always have to find something to complain about, and our biggest gripe at the time was Matthew Broderick, who we thought was miscast. He was trying so hard to come off as nebbishy and ineffectual, and it just didn't feel quite right. Broderick's natural manner is ease, a casual nature, best seen in fare like Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But though he didn't fit quite right, he didn't bother us too much, and he didn't ruin the show, and Nathan Lane seemed to like him, so we let it go. Well, seeing the film, it all came rushing back, and I'm now more convinced than ever that he's not really right for the part. Admittedly, following Gene Wilder is a mammoth task (one of the many reasons I avoided Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was out of fidelity to Wilder's magnificent Willy Wonka). Broderick's approach is built entirely out of nervousness. It's flat, and threatens to get irritating. On Curb Your Enthusiasm, they pretended to cast David Schwimmer in the role. I think he might be a better choice.

The rest of the cast acquits themselves fine, although there's this nagging sensation that they're waiting for the laughter to die before moving on to the next line. The more that happened, the more certain I was that I was watching a commemoration of the stage show, not a whole new movie. And that's just not all that fun. Granted, seeing the show costs at least ten times as much, but at least I'm watching something that makes sense where it is.

The bottom line is, I enjoyed The Producers well enough, and it got a surprisingly strong response from the audience around me. But the whole experience was frustrating beyond reason. I saw a show that was truly great. The took that show and made it into a movie that was okay. That shouldn't happen, and it's a damn shame.

* Barely related postscript: prior to this movie, I was treated to a preview of American Dreamz, and let me offer my kudos to the makers of that film for crafting a seriously bizarre piece of cinema. Seriously, good or bad, that is going to be one weird-ass film.