Monday, December 22, 2014

Best and Worst Movies Of The Year

I don't see every movie that comes out, and I usually stay away from big special effects movies or anything in the fantasy-fiction realm (e.g. "The Hobbit," "Guardians Of The Galaxy"), but here the best and worst movies I saw in 2014, in no particular order:

Best Movies Of The Year
"Gone Girl." A brilliant adaptation of the book by director David Fincher, with an amazing performance by Rosamund Pike and a reminder that Ben Affleck can give a very solid performance.

"Obvious Child." Gillian Robespierre's comedy about a woman who decides to get an abortion after finding herself pregnant following a one-night stand. Jenny Slate is terrific as the lead.

"Nightcrawler." Dan Gilroy directs Jake Gyllenhaal to his best performance as a sleazy guy who discovers the business of shooting gruesome crime footage late at night and selling it to a local TV news director (played by Gilroy's wife, Rene Russo).

"Top Five." Chris Rock wrote, directed, and stars in the funniest movie of the year, with a slew of comedians in supporting roles and the perfect co-star in Rosario Dawson. I hope he's found his screen voice, rather than his previous lightweight stuff like "I Think I Love My Wife" and "Head of State."

"Whiplash." J.K. Simmons will be nominated for his performance as the toughest music teacher you've ever seen, who mentally abuses a young drummer (Miles Teller) trying to improve his skills at the country's best music school. In Simmons' character, writer/director Damien Chazelle has proven that great villains aren't just the bad guys in superhero movies.

"Birdman." Alejandro Innaritu directed the story of an actor slowly going mad as if it were all one long take, and it's startling to watch. Moreover, he has the best ensemble cast of the year in Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Amy Ryan. The first intense face-to-face scene with Keaton and Norton should be the entry for both of them for an Oscar.

"The Trip To Italy." The second-funniest movie of the year is this sequel in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel around Italy, dining in fine restaurants while talking about life and everything else that occurs to them, which usually involves impressions of Michael Caine and others. I can't wait to see their next trip.

"Citizenfour." Laura Poitras' coverage of the early days of the Edward Snowden story, as he reveals the extent of the NSA's surveillance on Americans and the rest of the world to journalist Glenn Greenwald, is the most important documentary of the year.

"Tim's Vermeer." Inventor Tim Jenison becomes obsessed with figuring out how the Dutch painter Vermeer was able to recreate reality so well in his paintings. His friend Penn Jillette realized this would make a good movie, and Penn's partner Teller directs it to perfection.

"Grand Budapest Hotel." I've never liked anything else Wes Anderson has done, but this story of a concierge (Ralph Fiennes) in a big hotel, surrounded by odd patrons and co-workers, is a feast for the eyes and mind.

Honorable Mention:
"Boyhood." Richard Linklater deserves praise for shooting his movie over a 12-year period with the same cast (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane), but in the end, the plot isn't as clever as the device.

"The Theory of Everything." Eddie Redmayne's performance as Stephen Hawking, from his days as a healthy and brilliant young man through his debilitating fight with ALS is nothing short of remarkable, with nice supporting work by Felicity Jones as Jane, his wife.

"Life Itself." Steve James's documentary about the late Roger Ebert reveals that he was much more than just a movie reviewer.

Worst Movies Of The Year
"3 Days To Kill"
"A Million Ways To Die In The West"
"Foxcatcher"
"Interstellar"
"Labor Day"
"Lucy"
"The Monuments Men"
"Sex Tape"

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hacked


Random thoughts on Sony withdrawing "The Interview," in light of threats by cyber-hackers who have already revealed the company's embarrassing internal documents...

I didn't get to see "The Interview" because the St. Louis press screening was scheduled for Thursday night, and the studio pulled it from release that morning, but based on reviews by critics who did see it, the world is not being robbed of an opportunity to see a masterpiece -- "The Interview" seems to be a stinker. Still, Rogen and Franco have enough of a fan base that the studio probably would have made its money back.

One thing that's a shame is that the movie had a nice juicy co-starring role for Lizzy Kaplan, who plays Virginia Johnson so well on Showtime's "Masters of Sex." I like Kaplan a lot -- even when she has her clothes on -- and hope she gets better roles in better movies, the kind that are actually projected onto large screens across the country.

Speaking of movie theaters, shouldn't the outrage-osphere be more upset with them than with Sony? After all, the studio didn't cancel the release of "The Interview" until the eight largest exhibition companies announced they wouldn't show the movie. I know that the hackers threatened "9/11-style attacks" on any theater that did show it, but I'm not even sure what that means. Were the hackers going to hijack airplanes and fly them into a multiplex theaterplex? More likely, those companies (like Sony's rival studios) are worried about being targeted by the cyber-extortionists.

Similarly, when President Obama says Sony "made a mistake...they should have called me first," what was he going to tell them? It's not like he can issue a presidential directive that movie theaters must show "The Interview."

On "Meet The Press" this morning, Sony's attorney David Boies told Chuck Todd, "Sony has been fighting to get this picture distributed. It will be distributed. What Sony is trying to do is to get the picture out to the public but at the same time to be sure the rights of its employees and the rights of the movie-going public are going to be protected." What he couldn't say was the public may be best served by keeping a bad movie under wraps.

Many celebrities expressed their outrage via Twitter, including business genius Mitt Romney, who tweeted, "Sony Pictures don’t cave, fight: release The Interview free online globally. Ask viewers for voluntary $5 contribution to fight Ebola." Wrong on two counts, Mitt. First, Sony's not in the business of producing $40 million movies to raise money for charity. Second, who would give their credit card information to a company that has proven itself vulnerable to hackers?

Speaking of money, all movies have insurance in the form of a completion bond, but I'm not sure whether Sony can collect on this one, since the movie was technically "completed," but not released. There are dozens of movies every year that are deemed too bad to waste money on promotion and exhibition, and I'm sure they can't ask the insurance company for their money back. What would the claim say -- "Extensive financial loss to due to the movie sucking"? If it were possible to get that sort of insurance-based money-back guarantee, Rob Schneider would get a lot more movies financed.

Finally, Michael Moore has posted a funny list of things he wishes the Sony hackers had demanded.

Stop Asking That

On Friday when President Obama held his end-of-the-year press conference, the topic of the Sony hack and the withdrawal of "The Interview" came up. The president said that his administration would respond to the hack, which he considered a criminal action, but was not going to say how it would carry out that response. Then he took more questions, and got this one from Roberta Rampton of Reuters:

On the hack, I know that you said that you’re not going to announce your response, but can you say whether you’re considering additional economic or financial sanctions on North Korea? Can you rule out the use of military force or some kind of cyber hit of your own?
I was listening to that portion of the press conference in my car and started shouting at the radio, "He just said he's not going to discuss what the response would be! Were you not in the room 15 seconds ago?" Obama remained calm and repeated that he wasn't going to get into details.

It reminded me of another press conference, this one during the first Gulf War in 1991 -- the one where Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US pushed back -- which "Saturday Night Live" parodied with Kevin Nealon (as Lt. Col. William Pierson) taking questions from the media. Note: aside from the all-star cast of that era, keep an eye out for two SNL writers among the questioners, the late Tom Davis and a young redhead named Conan O'Brien...

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Harris Challenge -- Year In Review Edition

Were you paying attention in 2014? Test yourself with this special Year In Review edition of my Harris Challenge -- the most fun you can have with your radio on! Listen and play along, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Creating Superathletes


"Faster, Higher, Stronger" isn't just the Olympics motto ("Citius, Altius, Fortius"). It's also the title of a fascinating new book by Mark McClusky, subtitled "How Sports Science Is Creating A New Generation Of Superathletes," When Mark joined me on KTRS, the topics we covered included:
  • Is there such a thing as a modern athlete who excels on just talent?
  • Is there a lot of snake oil being sold to athletes?
  • What's the effect of long road trips on teams on the coasts vs. middle of America?
  • Does playing "Madden NFL" and similar video games make players better?
  • Is America the best at Sports Science?
  • How does Usain Bolt, world's fastest man, compare to Jesse Owens?
Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Knuckleheads In The News® 12/19/14


The stories in this edition of Knuckleheads In The News® include a stolen urinal, a fake heart attack, and a drunk chief of police.  Listen, then click here to subscribe to these podcasts via iTunes!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Picture Of The Day

"The Colbert Report" ended last night after 9 years. "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" airs its last episode tonight after 10 years. But an even longer-lasting late-night tradition comes to a close tonight when Jay Thomas tells his classic Lone Ranger story and Darlene Love sings "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on David Letterman's show for the final time.

She recorded the song in 1963 for Phil Spector's Christmas album, and first performed it with Paul Shaffer and his band in 1986 on Letterman's NBC show. Since then, she's been back every year, with Shaffer leading enough musicians to qualify as a wall of sound, and the show's production people making it a highlight of the season. Here's a supercut of Love's appearances...

KTRS Friday


I'll be on KTRS today 3-6pm CT, and in the first hour will talk with Mark McClusky about his book, "Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating A New Generation Of Superathletes."

I'll also have a Year In Review edition of my Harris Challenge (the most fun you can have with your radio on) and a brand new batch of Knuckleheads In The News®. Plus, Colin Jeffery and I will review the best and worst movies of the year. You can listen over the air, via the station's free smartphone app or via KTRS.com.

We'll Meet Again

The song that Stephen Colbert and his assembled multitude sang on the final episode of "The Colbert Report" was "We'll Meet Again," written in 1939 by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles, made famous by Dame Vera Lynn in the 1943 movie of the same name. It has also been used many other times in pop culture, from "Dr. Strangelove" to The Muppets to "True Blood." Here's a list of all the celebs who turned up to wing it with Colbert.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Goodbye Colbert (and Craig)


"The Colbert Report" will air its last original episode tonight -- and the word "original" certainly applies.

Stephen Colbert's character was a brilliantly-devised vessel for satirizing television, politics, and the world at large, and his performance as that character is unique in the recent history of American entertainment. Colbert's ability to simultaneously inhabit and mock the persona of a right-wing blowhard amused me every night in the scripted portions of the show, but it was his interviews -- both at his guest desk and in features like "Better Know A District" -- that were stunning, because he was improvising in character and making it funny. That's not easy to do occasionally, but to do it regularly (200 times a year for 9 years) should have been impossible, if it were not for Colbert's prodigious talent.

Tonight's finale will be must-see TV, and I can't wait to see what Colbert does in his next incarnation nine months hence, when he returns to television hosting "The Late Show" on CBS as himself.

Meanwhile, very little is being written about the departure of another veteran late-night host, Craig Ferguson, whose "Late Late Show" brings down the curtain tomorrow night.

Early in his run, I praised Ferguson for breaking away from the late-night format stereotypes of a topical monologue and wacky bandleader/sidekick. Following Peter Lassally's advice, Ferguson used his monologue to tell stories and talk about his own life, then sat down to have real conversations with interesting guests.

Unfortunately, a few years ago, Ferguson must have grown tired of that show structure, so he began using playing around in contrived silliness with his gay robot skeleton sidekick and two guys in a horse suit. They wasn't as funny as he thought they were, but it became apparent he loved them.

Worse, the guest conversations started to have no point to them, as Ferguson made a great gesture every night to tear up a blue card that ostensibly had talking points for the guest, so instead of steering guests towards interesting topics they wanted to discuss, he just winged it in a rambling discussion about nothing in particular. Ferguson's a funny guy, but he can't improvise a complete conversation like that. It was as interesting as listening to a dinner-party conversation between two people who had never met before. They might occasionally say something interesting or intriguing, but there was a lot of boring stuff along the way.

As an interviewer myself, I can tell you that having some notes (not fully written questions, but ideas of things to talk about) are vital to making a conversation work on the air. That's where Ferguson failed while Colbert soared. The latter's improvisation was based on knowing things about his guests ahead of time -- and working off of cards -- while Ferguson's casual, whatever-happens attitude didn't serve him well.

I'll tune in to his "Late Late Show" tomorrow night to see his farewell, but I don't expect it to leave much of a mark on the late-night-TV timeline.

Best Thing I've Read Today

Last month, I linked to a powerful, thoughtful piece by David Masciotra that criticized military worship, in which he wrote that American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't done so to protect our freedoms, that not every soldier is a hero if you include the large number who have been charged with sexual assault and rape, and that "supporting the troops" is a worn-out cliche in a country that practically forgets about our men and women in uniform once they return home -- particularly those with physical and mental impairments.

After his essay was published, right-wing media went to town on Masciotra with the highest levels of vitriol, and its viewers/listeners -- who didn't bother to read his words, but reacted to claims about it made by fear-mongering, incendiary radio/TV hosts -- went ballistic online. In a followup entitled, "My Week In The Right-Wing Lie Machine," Masciotra writes about that reaction:

Just as observing the indifference toward rape in the military exposes the depth and breadth of American sexism, any engagement with right-wing media and culture confirms all the worst suspicions anyone could have about its leaders and followers.

There is not only an acceptance of ignorance, but from Fox News, an encouragement of it. On “Fox and Friends,” “The Five” and Fox Business News’ “The Independents,” the respective hosts of the programs vilified and demonized me as someone who hates everyone in the military. “Fox and Friends” posted my photo, over the ominous tones of their hosts condemning my words – almost none of which they quoted – as if it was a mug shot, and then told readers, “Go tell him what you think of this.” The language of the command exposes the poison of their propaganda. They did not tell viewers to go online and read the article, evaluate it according to their own analysis, and decide for themselves what they believe. They ordered their viewers to believe a certain way, without acquiring any information, and target me with their hatred and hostility. Judging from my inbox, thousands of viewers marched along like wooden soldiers, eager to behave as if they just received a lobotomy from the skilled surgeons of Fox.

The pattern of ad hominem attacks, without any engagement of the evidence or acknowledgment of the argumentation of my article, demonstrated the thoughtlessness that defines political activism on much of the right wing, but also the racism, homophobia and prejudicial scorn and fear of Islam. Clearly, the worst thing much of the right can think to call someone is “gay.” Nearly every email I received contained some accusation of homosexuality. When one homophobic crackpot suggested that I’ve had sex with John Mellencamp, Jesse Jackson, Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter, because I’ve written favorably about all four men, I emailed a bisexual friend and said, “I’m not gay, but if I was, I guess I’d have some impressive and accomplished partners.” My friend wrote back, “I’d be in awe.”
Read Masciotra's full piece here.  His original piece is here.